Why the BBC has to pull its socks up if it wants to earn respect of its audience, says Christa Ackroyd

I was 19 when I proudly turned up for work wearing my rather lovely and bang on trend new purchases. You have to be of a certain age to remember the brand, but I couldn’t have been happier with my Inega jeans. They were the first stretch denim on the market. What’s more at a cost of £5 they had set me back just under a third of my weekly wage as a trainee reporter for the Halifax Evening Courier. I couldn’t wait to show them off.

Within five minutes I was called over to the News Editor’s desk for a word. It was his job to hand out the news stories of the day and considering I had already made my voice heard about why women were given the ‘fluff’ and the boys the ‘real’ stories I was expecting to be assigned something with real substance. I was to be disappointed.

Roland was a kind, lovely man and it was rare anyone faced his wrath. But I could see on his face he was furious, not about my abilities to cover news stories, but about what I had chosen to wear. And he was quite right.

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That day I was taught a valuable lesson and one which has lived with me ever since; that there are times to dress down or even dress up and going to work is not one of them. Particularly if you are to be invited into people’s homes.

Christa AckroydChrista Ackroyd
Christa Ackroyd

Quietly he was seething, he explained why that day I would not be sent out anywhere, let alone on one of the main stories of the day. “How can I send you to an important council meeting, to a business, or worse still to meet a family who are in mourning wearing those?”, he said, looking down at my tight fitting flared denims, which suddenly seemed to lose their appeal. “Save those for the discotheque (I told you it was a long time ago) and wear something which shows the one thing you must always show – respect.”

And that, dear readers, is exactly what the BBC will continue to lose if their latest suggestion to their reporters is a green light to exhibit a lack of standards and more importantly a lack of empathy for the subjects they are there to interview.

This past week one of the BBC’s Directors of News, Naja Nielson has reportedly told her reporters they no longer have to dress smartly. What’s more she said looking ‘dirty’ and ‘sweaty’ would make them appear more trustworthy. What absolute total and utter nonsense. An example of the BBC losing touch with it’s viewers.

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Those who watch have a right to expect serious news to be taken seriously. Those who find themselves the subject of it even more so. And someone who so obviously has dragged on the first thing that came to hand that morning let alone put a comb through their hair is not what we expect. Or demand. But that is exactly what I am seeing more and more on the BBC these days. And it has to stop, let alone be dressed up as a statement of trust and sincerity.

My comments are not an age thing, far from it. As I sit and write this week I am wearing jeans and a sloppy jumper with trainers. And I have not put on a scrap of makeup. Because I am going nowhere.

But if I were going to meet my bank manager, talk to a luncheon group or meet any of you in my field of work I hope I would show you the respect you deserve and not turn up like some scruffy oik. You deserve my time and effort if you are giving me yours. It’s as simple as that.

Every reporter worth his or her salt carries with them an emergency kit, or should do. And that means hanging up in the closet is a smart suit. And a black one. When Princess Diana died that is what I wore on television. When the Queen died within minutes newsreaders and reporters changed into a black tie and the women into black coats. And quite right too. But respect should be shown to everyone we meet along the way, often in their darkest moments. And we therefore must dress appropriately. As for making us appear more trustworthy if we dress down, the exact opposite is true.

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In every reporter’s kit should also be a smart warm waterproof jacket and sensible footwear for whatever story comes along. Just because we are outside is no excuse for scruffiness. That is simply another word for laziness. And the reverse is also true. Let us dress for the job in hand, not as though we are going for a night out on the town or for a day down at the allotment. Because that doesn’t make us trustworthy, it makes us and the subject we are delivering, less dignified.

So let’s now turn our attention to being sweaty. It is a well known fact that TV lights are hot and therefore have a tendency to make us sweat, which is why not only women whose job it is to appear on screen wear powder as do most of the men. It may surprise many readers to know that politicians often ask for makeup when they come into the studio, for one reason and one reason only. To appear sweaty is exactly the opposite of appearing trustworthy. It makes people look nervous and, dare I say it, shifty.

And if you don’t believe me it is said that Richard Nixon lost the Presidential campaign in the first televised candidates debate to the debonair John F Kennedy in 1960 precisely because viewers failed to listen to his answers so drawn were they to him constantly mopping his sweaty brow having refused makeup before the debate. It is not a question of vanity it is a question of looking as though you can do the job.

It is also like every actor discovers part of dressing for the role you are paid to perform. Put on the suit and you feel in control. Look sloppy and I am afraid, particularly in the complex world of live broadcasting where people are shouting in your earpiece, you will feel sloppy.

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Of course there are obvious exceptions to the rule. When Richard Whiteley reported live from the Brighton hotel bombing at the Conservative party conference covered in ash and debris it was broadcasting at its best. Just as those brave reporters covering war as we have witnessed in Ukraine are far more than the clothes they wear, they are risking their lives to bring us the horror of events on the battlefield. But as a rule it is up to every reporter to make an effort. It is not about dressing to impress. It is about dressing to show respect.

In this flakey world we find ourselves in respect might often be seen to have flown out the window. It needs to be brought back not dumbed down. I respectfully suggest the BBC are at odds with many viewers if they feel their latest edict will impress. As my old news editor told me, “Christa you are not here for a fashion parade you are here to do a job. So dress as if you mean to do it justice.”

I see no reason to suggest the same rules are any different today as they were then. So pull your socks up BBC. Trust is earned, not a gimmick. And in my book it will never go out of fashion.