It’s interesting to read that the French are adding “accent discrimination” to their equality laws.
In Britain, we seem to be getting past the stage of despising people for the way they speak. When I joined the BBC in 1979, it was still very rare for a national newsreader to have a regional accent, and the first time I was interviewed for BBC Radio Stoke, the first question asked was “How can a person from Stoke on Trent (with heavy emphasis) get to be head of the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit?” Certainly at that time, my accent would not have been thought acceptable for reading the news. At my interview for the job (a very impressive board – Adam Raphael (Presenter of The World Tonight on Radio 4); Ann Every (Chief Announcer, World Service) and Randolph Quirk; as well as my head of department and a personnel officer), I was asked why I thought RP was used for newsreaders and announcers, but not necessarily for weather forecasters. My answer was that perhaps it had something to do with the content of the message – The News (with definite capital letters) was a statement of fact (how times have changed!) which should be delivered in a neutral tone, and RP was then considered the most ‘neutral’ and authoritative accent, whereas the weather forecast was more a matter of opinion, and on a topic we all ‘suffered’ from, and so more suited to a regional accent, showing that, in the modern phrase, we’re all in it together.
In 1986, a television documentary called “Talking Proper”, in which I took part, included a contribution from a Scottish accented newsreader, recently attached to Radio 4, who had had an appalling letter from a listener, saying “I hear you’re going on holiday soon: I hope it’s somewhere the IRA is interested in.” That newsreader was on a temporary attachment, and so moved on, but later returned to Radio 4, and received nothing but complimentary comments from listeners. I suspect that neither Alan Smith (clearly not RP) nor Neil Nunes or Viji Alles gets abusive hate mail any more. I may be wrong, but my feeling is that the British public is now far more accepting of different accents than it used to be, even thirty years ago.
The British accents that regularly come bottom of the polls for ‘likes’ are mostly those of industrial cities: Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow. Is the dislike caused by a perceived ugliness in the sound, or is it rather the fact that outsiders have a poor understanding of the current social conditions of the area, and still associate the Black Country, Merseyside, the schemes in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the East End of London with slums and ‘dark Satanic mills’?
I certainly can’t imagine a British politician, being asked a question by a Geordie journalist “Can somebody ask me a question in English, please?” as a French politician recently did in the equivalent situation.