13 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 74

Natural decency

Michael Vestey

After hearing a Muslim praising the 9/11 hijackers on Today on Radio Four this week, I realised that people like him are so warped and mentally shackled by their extreme interpretation of Islam that their brains have ceased to function in any meaningful, normal way. Fortunately, as I was mulling over what the fool had said, natural human decency and goodness was to hand in the form of a cassette the BBC had sent me of a programme on Radio Four this week, It My Story: Harvest of Hope (Thursday).

Peggy Ogonowski, the widow of the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, the Boeing 767 which was the first of the two aircraft to be flown into the World Trade Center, spoke of her husband John's dedication to helping Cambodian immigrants restart their agricultural careers on his farm in New England. He owned a working farm of 150 acres at Dracut, near Boston, where he produced hay, corn, peaches and pumpkins. He was also a conservationist. He gave land and time to a project to help Cambodians with a farming background to become familiar with American husbandry in the hope that they, too, will work the land as his immigrant grandfather did. It seems that there are about 60,000 Cambodians in New England and since his death Peggy has kept the scheme going.

She showed the producer Linda Pressly around Dracut, which has a square dedicated to Ogonovvski's memory. The farm is now managed by his younger brother Jim who said that they felt John's presence was always there. Touchingly, he said his first bale of hay went on the ground not the wagon so his brother would have somewhere to sit down. Peggy revealed that she had in her living room what she called 'contraband'. a one foot by six inches piece of Flight 11's metal fuselage that she admitted she shouldn't have. She was familiar with the actual plane and without her husband's remains it was all that they had from his last day alive. His life, she said, had been of great value, not just to her and the family but also to the community. She accepted that what happened that day would haunt her for the rest of her life. The programme marked the second anniversary of that unspeakable crime against humanity.

The retirements of Brian Perkins and Peter Donaldson as Radio Four announcers is bad news for those of us who prefer Received Pronunciation from Radio Three and Four announcers. Their voices will still be heard but less frequently. The advantage of RP is that everyone can understand it without straining to follow the words as sometimes happens with broad regional accents. Radio is just words, of course, and for the listener it's easy to mishear them sometimes. Switching on in the car to a discussion on The World At One last week, I heard the presenter Nick Clarke, a clear and precise broadcaster with an attractive voice, end the interviews with what sounded to me like, 'Smallpox and Lance Price'. He had, in fact, been talking to Sir Paul Fox, the former managing director of BBC Television, and Price, a former BBC political reporter who became a No. 10 spin doctor, about the BBC's position at the Hutton Inquiry.

Donaldson and Perkins have been voted respectively second and third most popular voices on radio, after Terry Wogan. They don't have posh accents of the kind that so terrify the BBC nowadays — Perkins is actually a New Zealander — but there is concern that the Corporation wants more regional accents on Radio Four. This is code for Northern and Scottish. I have nothing against them, some are extremely pleasant on the ear, but there should be as few distractions as possible in reading the news. Radio Four is also a distinctive and successful brand, instantly recognisable by the tone and style of its newsreaders. It would be foolish of the network to change that, if indeed that is what it's considering.

A reader, emailing me from Scotland, has noticed something that's been puzzling me for some time. It is the use of the Northern hard 'a' by certain announcers and reporters who do not appear to be from the North of England and who in all other respects sound Southern. He thinks it's awful and suspects political correctness. Perhaps it's part of the BBC's obsession with not sounding Southern, and by implication middle class; something, of course, that most BBC people are.

The effect of this linguistic phenomenon is that the listener sits there wondering if the speaker is Northern or Southern and when he or she is next likely to deploy the hard 'a'. Sometimes they do forget to use it. In the meantime, of course, what the announcer or reporter is saying passes us by as we are so riveted by how they are speaking. If anyone at the BBC can, in confidence of course, shed some light on this, it would be appreciated (michael.vestey@btinternet.com).