The Campaign for Northern Voices

Below is the Facebook post that kicked it off.


I’m here and now launching the Campaign for Northern Voices (Tagline: “Proud to Talk Northern”). There are no national news readers with a Northern English accent (Steph McGovern does BBC Business bulletins and gets routine flak for her Middlesbrough accent). Studies show that University students are routinely mocked for their regional accents, every female academic in one study lost their regional accent in order to “Be taken more seriously” and even Fosters Comedy Award winners with Northern English accents account for a tiny percentage of the total (Fewer than ten per cent- “But Northern people are famed for being funny?” “Well, indeed”). Actors with native R.P or neutral accents are explicitly favoured for roles and drama school places (This is not unrelated to the fact that a recent study has shown 76% of actors are middle class- class issues are hard to divorce from Northern voices. A Northern accent is an indicator of being working class and being working class is currently particularly stigmatised).
This is not a campaign asserting that Northern voices are better than any other accents. Clearly, they are not (Though I think they’re lovely). But they’re no worse either.
It’s also a campaign calling for a widening of the Northern voices we hear. The white, male, gritty Northern narrative is an important part of the Northern voices narrative. We need blokes standing on rocks looking hard and troubled. But we also need to hear more women, ethnic minorities, gay people, disabled people, trans people and people I’ve forgotten. (Tell me).
There was a bit a of a cull of audible Northern voices (Especially female ones) when the brief window of meritocracy opened to let lots of grammar school Northerners through in the 50s-70s. Jenni Murray and Joan Bakewell may let us know they’re from the North – but somewhere along the way they had to lose their voices. Now, there’s generations of Northerners growing up who are less likely to do that- but with the continuing stigma attaching to a Northern accent their having one means they may hit what Dave O Brien has called “The class ceiling”. I don’t want this for the thousands of kids I’ve worked with in Northern schools, helping them to find a voice in poetry and performance. I want them to have an equal chance of getting on the radio, in a play, on a festival bill, an arts award, a corporate job or a career in a bank even if that’s what they want (Studies have shown that accent is one of the grounds on which elite firms still discriminate without penalty).
There are logistical issues here too of course. London is the giant money-sucking, money generating machine which causes a bigger gap between capital and rest of the country of any European country. People still believe they need to go to London to “make it”. But even that’s getting harder- from tuition fees to huge train fares, sky high rents and lower wages. The further you are from London, the less social and cultural capital you have in the capital (mates, parents friends, whatever), the harder it is to garner some. As even cross-North travel can sometimes be a challenge, people can get stuck.
I feel I’ve been advocating this campaign without it being named for a while now. On a panel about the future on the BBC in Sunderland when BBC Trust members appeared to listen to me saying that London (and even Manchester based) media not paying travel fees (or resenting paying travel expenses) for performers based elsewhere was discriminatory. On an Arts Council away day in Blackpool where I hopefully reinforced some of the thoughts they’re having about diversity and representation by joking about Northern Voices (But I wasn’t only joking), in my PhD where I’m talking to other performers about how this stuff affects them, in my every gig and performance in which I make yet another joke (not only a joke) about being a rare Northerner on Radio 4. Yes, Radio 4, Arts Council, BBC- I’m not exactly Che Guevara here. But I encounter a lack of thought about these issues and how they affect the next generation of Northerners (and present ones) every where I go. It’s an issue of representation. Class and accent are not one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act (I suppose that’s why shows like “Benefits Street” can even happen). It’s hard enough for the protected characteristics to be protected- never mind ones that aren’t.
Does a Northern national newsreader solve ingrained class prejudice and deep class based traumas in economically deprived towns? No, it’s a symbol, but potentially a potent one.
This campaign runs in solidarity with those fighting for people to have representation and a voice- from Scottish Independence campaigns to Lenny Henry calling for more diverse actors and voices on our screens, from those calling for an end to prejudicial representations of trans people, gay people, disabled people and women. It calls for Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the regions to have a bigger voice in Britain’s national story, for immigrants from all over the world to be welcomed, accepted and heard. And those (relatively quiet) voices calling for an end to the stigma of being working class.
Is this campaign parochial and the very opposite of what’s needed in a globalised world? It’s a potential danger. But it isn’t saying that the North is inherently better than any region of the U.K. It is saying that its people (Who constitute 30% of the population) deserve equal opportunities to those who are closer, by dint of geography or perceived cultural capital, to Southern centres of power and representation.
It will highlight instances of prejudice and discrimination. It will hark on more about cultural representation than other stuff because of the biases of its founder and because cultural representation (or Northern lack of it) is showing us something right under our noses but somehow invisible. It will be funny sometimes, but not only funny.
There will be badges. And other things. Those other things will unfold. I’ll take it everywhere I go and at the moment I’m getting about. You in? Any thoughts?