Let the spoken word
be heard plainly
I meant to assemble some criticisms of the spoken word as used and heard in broadcasting, especially on the BBC, but changed my mind. Instead I offer suggestions for improvement. It isn't a great change, for it's the same article from now on, but recognises that things could be a lot worse, and are a lot worse on other channels. The points wouldn't be worth making were it not for the world role and reputation of the BBC in combining high standards of speech with the need for language to be varied, flexible, and responsive to change.
I'm not reopening old arguments about 'received standard pronunciation' and accents. The modern diversity of broadcasting stations has removed most causes of grievance or irritation and the BBC has achieved a reasonable balance. It maintains clarity and allows diversity, though I wish its tolerance didn't extend to the Cockney glottal stop which occasionally gives us weather forecasts for 'Scawland'. What worries me most is failure to let what is spoken be properly heard. The BBC has relaxed some old standards which often seemed austerely inflexible but has also picked up bad habits.
I remember, back in what the peerless Alistair Cooke called 'the olden time', occasional irritation when the BBC sought comments from me and insisted that they involved a studio presence to ensure sound quality. Telephone interviews were frowned on, if not forbidden. That things are very different now is partly explained by immense improvements in telephone sound. But this makes it all the more irritating when BBC radio news renders long extracts (usually too toothless to be called sound-bites) from speeches apparently delivered in resounding marble halls with poor acoustics and defective electronics. Nor I am entirely appeased when newsreaders and presenters apologise for the poor quality of some telephoned interview from the ends of the earth. Only occasionally and in great matters should immediacy take precedence over clarity,
But these are symptoms of other BBC changes from that 'olden time' which was also its golden time: a switch of emphasis from effective summary with as many facts as possible towards commentary – most spectacularly in the unusual speech rhythms of Robert Peston – and 'actuality', whether in the form of extracts from dull statements by ministers or economic opinions recorded at supermarket checkouts.
There is another symptom in the belief that that radio news is improved if it can be embellished or intensified by background noise. On some channels, even at times Radio Scotland, news headlines are accompanied and even subdued by tuneless thumps of electronic music which are presumably thought to convey a sense of urgency. Interviews on transport policy are conducted beside some roaring motorway. Bells peal joyfully or mournfully. A report on some English football-related controversy begins with extracts from a supporters' anthem. And coverage of the world's troubles, something which the BBC still does well, must be introduced or punctuated by the screech of ambulance or police sirens and the crackles and crashes of small-arms fire and explosives.
It's much worse on television, but bound to be. By its nature TV cannot celebrate the spoken word as good radio broadcasting can, for it's the pictures that make good TV and let much mediocre TV remain watchable.
Such sounds make their point when reporters are on the spot while things happen, perhaps even keeping their heads down. They are wasteful and distracting when fitted into a report done back in the office. I even find them rather absurd when the BBC regularly reminds us, quite rightly, that it cannot report freely from Syria and goes to its man in Beirut, who does his best in the circumstances but is expected to fit in bomb-and-siren noises recorded from Homs or Damascus.
It's much worse on television, but bound to be. By its nature TV cannot celebrate the spoken word as good radio broadcasting can, for it's the pictures that make good TV and let much mediocre TV remain watchable. The only reason for watching TV news, rather than staying with more compact radio bulletins, is that often the pictures become the story, even drive some of the biggest stories. But TV has always been fascinated by the use and frequent abuse of extraneous sound, and especially by the use of music, some good, some terrible, to create a mood, just as the cinema has always done. This can be done to near-perfection as in Ken Burns's classic account of the American Civil War or good British TV like 'Brideshead Revisited' and 'Inspector Morse'. It can also provide good clean fun, as when the music warns of imminent impalement or decapitation in 'Midsomer Murders'. In such cases part of the music's success is in enhancing fine use of the spoken word in dialogue or narration.
But much TV is done badly, not just the routine schedule-filling stuff but pretentious failures like the latest version of 'Upstairs, Downstairs'. A frequent cause of the failure is the demotion of both the importance and the quality of the spoken word.
Often it is spoiled by misguided, gabbled realism with dialects from Birmingham to the Bronx. Sometimes, as in bits of 'Upstairs, Downstairs', it's simply a case of heavy music almost drowning dialogue. Sometimes there's a more complex problem, reflecting the way that much TV is made by people under 40 but largely watched by people over 60.
One generation, not yet deafened by the noise it creates and enjoys, happily experiments with music in all its variety and new electronic variations. The other, struggling a little to hear what it wants to hear, is bombarded with a lot that it doesn't want. It not only comes often in styles that seem strident and harsh but can destroy the quality of speech and even blot out its meaning.
I don't raise these objections to current fashion from any desire for a late-life career-change into TV criticism; and I've done enough rewriting and summarising in my time to appreciate the skills that go into any good radio news bulletin, whether at a great crisis or on a dull day. Much of what I hear today remains worthy, both in script and delivery, of the medium that was enriched by such different voices as Stuart Hibberd's and Bill McLaren's, John Arlott's and Neville Garden's, Alistair Cooke's and Tom Fleming's. But there is a lot that is sub-standard and a good deal that suffers from reluctance to let the words be heard plainly and clearly.
R D Kernohan is a writer and broadcaster