Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Lindsay Perigo: The Rice for the Putts

I wonder how many television viewers there are like me for whom watching the six o’clock news on TVNZ or TV3 was until recently a staple of their daily routine but who now repair to online sources for their news because the network bulletins have become unwatchable—or more precisely, unlistenable? An army of airheads has been let loose on the airwaves who have no business being anywhere near a microphone sounding the way they do. They don’t speak, they quack. Many newsreaders and most reporters on flagship news bulletins now sound like panicked ducks at the start of the shooting season.

Their employers, far from being alarmed by the situation and sending their uneducated charges off for remedial speech training, embrace the barbarian triumph as a victory for the authentic Kiwi accent. It is nothing of the sort. The quacking epidemic spawned by TVNZ and TV3 is now a national plague and an international joke, an unseemly blight on a nation claiming to be civilised. In recent weeks, high-profile commentators Karl du Fresne, Deborah Coddington and Janet Wilson (herself a former television reporter) have rung alarm bells about it.

As I put it myself in my online Kiwis Don’t Quack campaign (lindsayperigo.com):

The barbarians have not stormed our ramparts; they have been bred withinthem—by our schools, universities and media. They are on radio and television, and on our sports fields; they are in our classrooms, theatres, medical schools and law faculties. Their quacking, droning, grunting and mumbling are our worst form of noise pollution. Their"yeah-no," "you-know," "like, like," "awesome," "cool," "wodevva," and so on are the bane of coherent conversation. Their mangled vowels and muddied consonants make swine sound educated. They are clueless about the distinction between “children” and “choowdren,” “Wellington” and “Wawwington,” “vulnerable” and “vunrable,” “the six o’clock news” and“the sucks o’clock news,” "showers" and "showwwwwwaz," “known” and “knowen,” “well” and “wow,” “health” and “howth,” “New Zealand” and “New Zilland,” etc. (And that's just the Prime Minister!) The locus of their emissions is not the mouth but the nose. Their assault on the English language is a [N]ational scandal. Theirs is not an accent; it is a disease.

It may be too late to stem the barbarian tide. Many people, including a revered former newsreader schooled, like me, at the long-defunct NZBC Announcer Training Centre, have ventured to me in private that the disease is entrenched and irreversible. Try to draw attention to it and you’ll be closed down. On Radio Live a few weeks back I played a couple of clips of leading news reporters in full quack. I neither named them nor specified for which network they were quacking—I had recorded 20 such clips from both TVNZ and TV3 bulletins. As it happened, the two clips I played were of TV3 reporters. TV3’s Head of News and Current Affairs, Mark Jennings, immediately fired off an e-mail to Radio Live Manager Mitch Harris calling me a “prick” and in effect demanding I be taken off air. When the Business Herald’s John Drinnan got wind of the story, Jennings acknowledged there was indeed a problem with his reporters’ speech, but Perigo couldn’t be the one to fix it since he had hurt their feelings! Mitch Harris, for his part, ordered me not to raise “old fart” concerns like speech standards again (I walked out).

People like Jennings, whom we expect to act as gatekeepers for the language, if not in fact militantly committed to its destruction, certainly behave as though they are. At TVNZ’s birthday bash celebrating 40 years of network news last year, Jennings’ TVNZ counterpart, Anthony Flannery, said it was a matter of pride for him that a voice-over leading into the six o’clock news now called it the “sucks o’clock news.” Flannery declined an invitation to discuss the matter with me over a drink, fobbing me off with, “I’m sure you’ll continue to keep us on our toes.” These linguistic thugs are part of a Media Mediocrity Mafia that, while not illegal, is certainly criminal. Ostensibly the two channels are in competition with each other; the only discernible contest between them as best I can tell is a race for the pits. Or, in quackspeak, a rice for the putts.

It’s no longer just that the content of the bulletins is braindead—someone pointed that out 17 years ago; it’s that the delivery is now braindead too—a clear case of arrested development. In their childlike glottal stops (“thuh office”), their selective emphasis that is 100% wrong (hitting conjunctions and prepositions—”Woow arroyv UN Wawwington ET sucks o’clock”), their spluttering nasality, their unprecedented capacity to combine dim-witted droning and silly sing-song, their inability to scan ahead and phrase intelligently, our reporters are stuck at the level of an infant. It may be that they are not truly the “airheads” that I just called them, but they certainly seem like airheads with such retarded speech patterns. No, one is not demanding they speak like the Queen, but is it too much to ask that they sound like educated adults? All that attention to how they look, and none whatsoever to how they sound! (Except when articulating Maori words. If it's good enough for Maori, why not English?)

One of my pupils, a budding TV actor barely in his 20s, confessed that he was in deathly fear of being made to sound “posh.” Sounding “posh,” he believed, would activate Tall Poppy Syndrome, be “uncool” and jeopardise his career. By “posh” he evidently meant “plummy, like Sam Neill,” whose career doesn’t seem to have suffered for it. I pointed to the impeccably Kiwi rugby commentary trio of Grant Nisbett, Tony Johnson and Murray Mexted, all of whom speak clearly and well without sounding remotely “plummy.”

What does it matter, the barbarians’ cheerleaders will ask, as long as we get the gist of what they’re saying?! Dominion Post columnist Karl du Fresne answered this recently:

I have heard it argued that none of this matters as long as we can understand what people are saying, to which my response is twofold. First, it's physically painful to listen to some of these awful voices torturing the language; and second, it's getting to the point where we can't understand them. It's only a matter of time before we'll need subtitles on the TV news bulletins to explain what some female journalists and newsreaders are saying.

And there’s more, a compelling reason why resistance to the barbarian onslaught is not just a quaint preoccupation of “old farts.” George Orwell said it best:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

A New Zealand in which quacking is as universal as it’s threatening to become will be intellectually bankrupt. Its democracy will be a travesty of freedom as vapid voters who routinely quack inanities such as “Yeah, no, I’m like, oh my god, that’s so totally awesome” will thus mindlessly endorse the most unconscionable bribes offered by the most unscrupulous politicians.

Not only being able to watch the news again, but also freedom and civilisation themselves, are at stake.

Lindsay Perigo is a former television newsreader and interviewer.w, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writersealand in which quacking is as universal as it’s threatening to become will be intellectually bankrupt. Its democracy will be a travesty of freedom as vapid voters who routinely quack inanities such as “Yeah, no, I’m like, oh my god, that’s so totally awesome” will thus mindlessly endorse the most unconscionable bribes offered by the most unscrupulous politicians

Not only being able to watch the news again, but also freedom and civilisation themselves, are at stak

Lindsay Perigo is a former television newsreader and interviewe

9 comments:

Ray said...

Maaaate, thats like, awesome dude.
It make me cringe also, people don't know how to pronounce "ing" at the end of a word any more. Such as , "human been", "horse racine" etc. However, if you think the present situation is bad, wait until we all start talking "Mardi" (or OZ)

Anonymous said...

Quite true Lindsay... I find it nauseating and embarrassing....

Anonymous said...

I agree with every word you said. New Zealand English is going down the drain. It's time the news readers and interviewers realise the influence they have on school children where learning to speak properly starts.

Anonymous said...

Rice for the Putts... a little too subtle for us mere ordianry folk.

Anonymous said...

Personally i feel they talk so bloody fast its hard to follow just exactly they are saying

Anonymous said...

Its a bloody shame your not back in the game!

Anonymous said...

John Campbell doesn't read the news - he gabbles.

He nightly competes with himself to get x number of words out into the open in a specified period

Anonymous said...

Not only do they need to be taught how to speak they need to be taught how to breath. They speak, run out of breath, and then continue to speak while forcing air out of their lungs.

And, in my opinion, only native speakers of the Maori language should be allowed to speak Maori on the radio and television. Every morning on 1YA we hear Maori pronunciation being butchered.

Anonymous said...

It's not only the pronunciation; it's the grammar. "It's that bad; why don't they speak like I do?"... and so on. Reminds me of the large road sign "Drive Slow" to which someone had added The "ly" in large felt pen.