Amol Rajan has challenged the director-general of the BBC over “accent bias” among its news presenters, saying it was striking that so many of them talk “posh”.
Mr Rajan is the first presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to have a strong south London accent.
For a forthcoming documentary, he commissioned research which found that 70 per cent of newsreaders across the four main UK broadcasters - BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky - speak with received pronunciation, an accent he said was used by only 10 per cent of the general population.
The BBC’s well-spoken news anchors include Fiona Bruce and Sophie Raworth on television, and Mr Rajan’s Today programme colleagues on radio, while ITV’s News at Ten is presented by the public school-educated Tom Bradby.
Huw Edwards, the BBC’s highest-paid news anchor, speaks with a Welsh accent but comes from a middle-class background.
“We found that 70 per cent of newsreaders spoke in the poshest accent after the King’s English, which is RP (Received Pronunciation). Does that surprise you?” Mr Rajan asked.
“Not particularly,” replied Mr Davie.
“Would you like to do something about it?” asked Mr Rajan. “Would you consider giving a main network presenting job to someone with a strong, regional, working-class accent?”
“Of course,” said Mr Davie.
“It’s quite striking that it hasn’t happened, isn’t it?” Mr Rajan added.
“Yeah,” said Mr Davie.
The director-general said he hoped the situation would change because the BBC was focused on improving the socio-economic diversity of its workforce.
He said: “There are a couple of things happening. I’ve pushed £700 million of spending outside the M25. It’s changing the BBC.
“There is a new Radio 1 strand out of Salford. [BBC One daytime show] Morning Live is coming out of Salford. It’s going to happen.
“I’m absolutely revving on it. The critical thing is that you don’t get a sniff of that slightly patronising ‘London is where the best output comes from’ [attitude]. It’s nonsense.”
‘People should have opportunities’
The BBC has set a target for a quarter of its staff to come from lower socio-economic backgrounds by 2027.
Mr Davie said that was “because there is a worry in any organisation that groupthink is an issue. I also think it’s just unfair; people should have opportunities.”
Mr Rajan, who has become one of the BBC’s most high-profile presenters since joining as media editor in 2016, previously made a documentary about social mobility.
In a past edition of Radio 4’s Start the Week, he argued against modifying a working-class accent. “Isn’t the danger that if you change your accent in different circumstances, there is a sense in which you are compromising your essential self?” he asked.
“More dangerously, is it loaded with the assumption that accent connotes morality?”
Elsewhere in their interview, Mr Rajan asked Mr Davie about the BBC’s response to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and whether the decision to cancel the Last Night of the Proms was the correct one.
Mr Davie disclosed that the decision was taken partly for practical reasons. The corporation feared it would not have enough outside broadcast trucks for the event, as they were required for royal coverage.
“We had enormous decisions to make. Do you put on Strictly? Do you do satire? Where do you stop?
“I think Last Night of the Proms was the most finely balanced one. That was a 50:50 call, but we probably made the right decision,” he said.
Mr Davie said the corporation had learnt lessons from the 109,741 complaints received about its coverage of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. Many of those were from Gardeners’ World viewers angry that the show was postponed.
“Never take off Gardeners’ World, ever,” said Mr Davie. “One of my claims to fame is that I did generate the most TV complaints in history in 24 hours.”