Accent bias at the BBC?

A BBC Breakfast business reporter recently revealed to The Sunday Times her experiences of class bias while working at the BBC.

Steph McGovern, a journalist born in Middlesbrough, spoke out about the difficulties of being from a working-class background in a work environment, arguing that class is a larger source of inequality than gender. The gender bias at the BBC has been well reported after the significant wage gap between the salaries of female and male presenters was revealed. McGovern said she is “just now” earning a six-figure salary but believes that her working-class background is another significant hurdle in achieving true equality at the BBC.

She spoke of “posher” women in similar positions to her, who she claimed are paid “a hell of a lot more”. Without revealing names, McGovern did divulge that out of the nine female news presenters earning upwards of £150,000 within the BBC, seven of these women were privately educated. It was also reported by the BBC in 2017 that 61 per cent of its employees came from families with parents who held professional jobs or managerial positions.

McGovern explained how she views her self-defined “smoggy” regional accent as the main indicator of her working class background, as well as her occasional use of ‘Northern-slang’. Such language is rarely associated with traditional voices heard in the media, especially news programmes. McGovern discussed an incident in which a manager told her she was “too common” for the BBC, an event that has no doubt shaped her perception of the corporation. McGovern is not the only TV presenter to reveal accent motivated discrimination. James Martin, a TV chef from Yorkshire, claimed he was rejected from two jobs at the BBC due to his regional accent, and that the BBC had informed him that this was indeed the reason for not choosing him.

McGovern, who began her career at the BBC through work experience which resulted in a part-time researcher role, is proud of her working-class upbringing – so much so that she is now calling for more working-class representation within the organisation.

McGovern’s comments have sparked conversations about how presenters and journalists are typically expected to look and sound. Although broadcasting has come a long way from the traditional sounds of 1930s-1950s ‘radio voice’, McGovern argues that more needs to be done in order to equate class diversity with the progress being made regarding ethnic diversity at the BBC and other media organisations.

Is McGovern’s belief that your accent can affect the way we are viewed correct? Apparently so, as a study by the University of South Wales has reported that people who talk with a Birmingham accent are thought to be less intelligent than those that remain silent.

The BBC provided a statement in response to McGovern’s comments. They claimed that 80 per cent of the BBC are from state educated backgrounds and that the BBC is more diverse than ever before in its history. Furthermore, they explained how they “offer hundreds of apprenticeships to ensure the BBC is open to people from all backgrounds and a range of programmes to help people develop their career once they’ve joined”. However, they did acknowledge that and how exposure to a greater variety of “there’s always more to do and [they] have an ambitious diversity strategy which sets out [their] commitment to fully reflecting and representing the whole of the UK”.

Steph McGovern’s comments have raised an important issue about the importance of diversity on our screens and how exposure to a greater variety of voices and backgrounds can prevent bias and unfair treatment.

Image: Steve Schofield via BBC Pictures

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