I was horrified that this kind of comment might still be being made. It was common enough a few decades ago, but times have changed, and people value regional accents so much more these days. The BBC itself had its wonderful 'Voices' project in August 2005, when a whole week was devoted to celebrating English accents in the UK, with every local radio station contributing, along with several specially commissioned programmes on national radio and TV. And we do hear regional accents on air much more these days. Listen to Susan Rae's lovely Scottish tones when she reads the news on Radio 4, for example. Or Huw Edwards' Welsh accent on BBC 1.
Anyway... after talking about this and a few other things, and listening to an extract from Dickens read in three regional accents, I ended my contribution with a flip remark to Eddie Mair. 'Why not do the whole of PM in regional accents one day?' 'Well there's a challenge', he replied. And I thought no more about it.
But what do I hear this week on PM? The challenge is taken up, in a small but significant way. They're calling it 'Accents Week'. Every day the 5.30 news is being read out in a regional accent - one that would not normally be heard on national radio (though common enough in local radio stations, of course). Yesterday (Monday) it was a male presenter with a fairly mild Cumbrian accent, notable for its pure 'o' vowels in words like 'go' - very Shakespearean! Today it was a female presenter from Merseyside, with a much stronger accent - 'work' pronounced as 'weark', and suchlike. I found it all enthralling, and all praise I say to PM for engaging in the experiment. I've no idea what accents will be chosen for the remaining three programmes. Listen in at 5.30 each day (or to Listen Again online) and you'll find out.
When you do listen, make sure you make a distinction between accent and professional style. To my ear, the Merseyside presenter wasn't as familiar with the formal Radio 4 news-reading style as her Cumbrian predecessor. A few words were produced a little too rapidly, and the various items of news weren't as intonationally separate as they ought to be in a news summary, tending to run into each other a bit. This is nothing to do with the accent, of course, and it's important not to 'blame' an accent for an issue that is to do with other factors, such as speed of delivery. Even RP presenters swallow their words at times, or drop their voices at a crucial moment so that you can't hear what's being said.
But these presenters, and the PM producers, have made an important contribution to the evolution of a climate of accent tolerance, in which organizations such as the BBC play a hugely important role. I'm delighted that the programme has taken this small step, and I hope it will be repeated - and not just by PM.