Image © ashiqkhan via Twenty20

Does British TV need more accent diversity?

‘Non-standard’ English accents in the media have been criticised for being ‘incorrect’ and hard to understand.

When you set a television show in a certain place, one of the ways you make the story feel ‘real’ is to get your actors to speak like the people who live in that area. So you wouldn’t think it would be controversial that The Responder, which is set in Liverpool, features predominantly Scouse accents. Enter Alan Sugar, who suggested doing this was a mistake because non-Liverpudlians like himself couldn’t understand it.

Although he got quite a lot of backlash for his comments, such a stance is far from unheard of. Cheryl Cole was apparently dropped from the US version of The X Factor because producers didn’t think Americans would be able to understand her Geordie accent. In 1922 the BBC introduced broadcasting standards that required its on-air talent to speak only in received pronunciation (RP) - that’s the posh English accent that we associate with the royal family and Made in Chelsea - on the basis that it would be the most understandable. (The policy started to be relaxed from the 1950s onward, but RP is to this day sometimes referred to as ‘BBC English’).

Prioritising understandability makes a certain kind of sense. It allows the media to reach more people, and particularly to reach an international audience. That means more money for media businesses… which in turn means they can hire more people and provide more content and even pay more tax to the government. It can also have more profound effects. The BBC, for example, has a history of broadcasting (comparatively) independent news and information into places where the press freedoms are muffled and propaganda runs rife. An example? Russia. (Although the BBC has just been banned there as of March 2022).

But there can also be substantial harm caused by a lack of accent representation in UK media, and many people feel these harms outweigh the cost of any slight decrease in understanding. For a start, only 2 percent of the UK population naturally speak with a RP accent, meaning that if this is the dominant voice heard in the media then the vast, vast majority of Brits won’t feel represented. And because RP is so closely associated with the upper classes, this lack of representation can also feel elitist. Research done by the UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom showed that working-class people thought that BBC content reflected the lives of middle class people more than their own.

Another argument is that deeming some accents as not suitable for radio or TV has helped entrench the bias that Brits already show against non-RP accents. A 2019 study found that the British public consider RP accents to be the most ‘prestigious’ and ‘pleasant’. Another suggests that your accent affects how intelligent and trustworthy people perceive you to be, with working class and regional accents faring the worst on these metrics. Considering this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that 80 percent of employers have admitted that they are less likely to hire someone with a regional accent. While accent bias is unlikely to be solely responsible for the fact that twice as many TV workers come from middle class families as the UK average, it probably doesn’t help. Presumably at least some media employers share the view of the former Labour MP - and RP speaker - Digby Jones, who last year criticised the BBC presenter Alex Scott (who speaks with a working-class London accent) for what he deemed her ‘incorrect’ pronunciation when she was presenting on the Olympics.

Accent representation has vastly improved in British media since RP was deemed the ‘proper’ way to speak in the 1920s. But many people feel there is still a long way to go, particularly when it comes to jobs like news anchors, where the need for candidates that read as 'serious' and 'professional' may be particularly activating hiring manager’s accent prejudice. And alongside increasing representation and combating bias there may be another advantage to increasing accent diversity: the more people hear an accent, the more likely they are to be able to understand it. Perhaps Lord Sugar should cast more Scouse entrepreneurs on the next season of The Apprentice.

Read our explainer on: socio-economic class

Recent articles

Reader Comments