Trevor McDonald is spearheading a government campaign to improve the way we speak. Reva Klein talks to a man with a mission. For a man whose stock in trade is immaculate enunciation and well-chosen words, even if the two for which he is most commonly known are "and finally . . .", it is fitting that Trevor McDonald, ITN's veteran anchorman and the best-known black presenter on British television, is to front the Better English Campaign. To be launched on April 15, this initiative is designed to encourage young people to make the English language work for them.
The initiative was set up by Gillian Shephard last October, in response to complaints by employers that job seekers, among them undergraduates and even graduates, are unable to write proper English and lack presentation skills in interviews. Ms Shephard decided to take the inarticulate bull by the horns, declaring that "our young people must leave school able to speak clearly and effectively in standard English. Communication by grunt is not good enough".
McDonald himself would rather overlook the reference to standard English, preferring to focus instead on how young people can use the language to their advantage. As the father of a 7-year-old who has taken to exclaiming "wicked" as a term of hearty approval, he is not ignorant of the power of popular culture and peer group parlance.
As chair of a steering group comprised of the great and the good, from business, education, showbusiness, sports, trade unions, the media and voluntary bodies among them Garth Crooks of the Institute of Professional Sports, John McCormick, controller of BBC Scotland, Sarah Permin of the TUC and Sir David Nicholas, chair of Talk Radio he sees the campaign's mission as one of "empowering young people to use the language to work for them." And that means that in whatever way they choose to communicate with friends and family, in whatever regional accent and from whatever social background, they know how to use language that is appropriate to different occasions and situations.
"When employers are looking at applicants, they're not necessarily looking for cut glass public school accents. They are looking at whether they can express themselves" Gillian Shepherd, who has launched the campaign at arm's length from the Government, has declared that she has "no wish for everyone from the North East or from Norfolk or even from the Thames Estuary to drop their rich regional accents in favour of so-called BBC English."
McDonald is more straightforward. "The idea that someone from the East End or the north of England can't speak proper English is garbage. Language is not the province of the upper class. The campaign is about making people aware of the deficiencies into which we've slipped. I believe that effective use of language is one of the things that can make class divisions disappear."
McDonald himself is a case in point. He is not just a poor boy made good but a black man from a humble background, born and bred in the Caribbean, who made it on to the television at a time when black presenters were not known in this country.
The son of a refinery engineer, his childhood in Trinidad was poor but enriched by a father who brought home any printed material he could lay his hands on - books, magazines, medical journals, anything. While Trevor devoured the printed word at home, at school it was pushed down his throat. He remembers being made to stand under the beating sun, "reciting great swathes of Tennyson." When he left the West Indies a quarter of a century ago, it was destined that he would achieve, but at a cost. "My parents lost me from the moment I got on the education ladder. I could see in their eyes that they knew it."
Gillian Shephard's request that he chair the Better English Campaign was a shrewd one, given his high profile and his position as role model who transcends the usual trappings of class. "The campaign is classless. It has to be because I'm heading it up," he laughs.
A major thrust of the campaign is getting employers' support in a number of different ways, including the funding of writers' and poets' workshops in schools and colleges and offering their services to help students learn and practise interview techniques and writing CVs.
There is another rationale in getting employers involved in the campaign. While the Department for Education and Employment is providing Pounds 250, 000 for the campaign's administrative support in its first two years, further funding will be up to the private sector. The whole thing will sink or swim depending on employers' enthusiasm and funding.
In addition to employers, local media organisations are also being asked to get involved, by giving time and help to young people to present their own shows or write articles, and to encourage popular presenters to talk about effective communication. In July The TES will be supporting an event, involving writers at Covent Garden's newly opened poetry cafe.
While McDonald readily admits that "this campaign can't claim to be a panacea to all that's wrong with spoken English," he does consider it to be an awareness-raising exercise for all those who have never paid much attention to their communication skills.
Campaign director Clive Saville, formerly head of the Schools Curriculum Branch at the Department for Education, hopes that spoken English is now more firmly established in the public consciousness. The campaign, he says, is in line with the national curriculum's new separate marking for spoken English, although the Secretary of State is keen to draw a clear distinction between the curricular side of the issue and the campaign's. "Everybody needs to be able to express themselves effectively," says Saville, "which means being able to use standard English when apropriate, even if it is not your native dialect. "
And finally, as Trevor McDonald would say, for more information on the Better English Campaign, ring 0171 404 9911.