Like most British people, I grew up with the BBC. Andy Pandy, Blue Peter, Tomorrow’s World … as a child those grainy, black-and-white programmes helped me to learn about life, the world – and the language. Now aged 59.75, I have paid my TV Licence Fee (by which the BBC is funded) for some 40 years. So it is particularly galling to hear the Beeb (“Auntie” as we used to call our national broadcasting treasure – but even that has fallen into disuse, it seems) now regularly misusing the language.
I don’t mean accents. I have no problem with regional accents, which were taboo on the BBC even 30 years ago. Indeed, Steph McGovern has a Geordie accent to die for. (I’m married to a Geordie, so perhaps I’m biased.) No, I mean the standard of grammar and accuracy that BBC news presenters and copywriters use. (I accept that “drama”, i.e. fiction, is a case apart.)
The BBC News website posts thousands of articles each day. I probably look at fewer (not “less”) than a couple of dozen. But in most of these there is an error or two.
Some errors are minor issues of style, such as such-and-such “will happen later“; or “happened earlier“. Of course they will (or did).
But some semantics have potentially serious consequences, given the power of the media to whip up sentiment. Two days ago – 48 hours before elections in the UK for the European Parliament – the BBC ran a story online about a UKIP “carnival” in Croydon, which dissolved into farce as people argued in a shopping centre. UKIP leader Nigel Farage failed to turn up. The initial BBC News headline was “Street clashes force Nigel Farage no-show”, and this was reflected in the first line of the piece. [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-27492711]. I pointed out to the BBC that “clashes” implied violence, which had been absent from the event, and that their report was dangerously misleading. Two hours later, the headline and opening line of the article had been amended to “Street rows …”
Some are factual. Two years ago, when Felix Baumgartner fell out of the sky to promote an already ubiqitous energy drink that really needed no more publicity, I corrected the BBC reporter about the year in which US colonel Joseph Kittinger set the previous record (it was 1960, not 1961). Two months ago, the BBC reported that “thousands of Africans are stranded in the Nigerian town of Agadez … as they battle to fulfil their dream of reaching Europe”. Fine, except Agadez is in Niger, not Nigeria, so the adjective is “Nigerien”. Most readers might not know, but – didn’t the BBC care? I pointed out the error, and it was put right within an hour – so perhaps they do.
It’s not just online. Hardly a day passes without me shouting at the television as some newsreader or reporter reads out something erroneous (but presumably they are paid so much they don’t care, and will read anything that’s put in front of them). Last night on Newsnight, a reporter described the European Commission as “the EU’s lawmakers”. Hardly. Yes, only the Commission can propose legislation, but it is the European Parliament – for whose membership some 400 million people should be voting over the next four days – that decides whether it becomes law.
I used to keep count of the corrections I put forward to the BBC (about 90% of which were “later” made). Such fundamental misunderstanding of the English language – by home-grown British people – is a shame on the nation’s education system. I am delighted to say that I am currently working with someone who knows how to use the language properly. She is from Georgia (the country, not the US state). And it is something of a paradox that one of the fiercest BBC guardians of correct English – for example using “stroke” rather than “slash” when reading out website names – is a Welshman.