Jessica Bott continues her series on ‘equivocation’:

When a politician is equivocating there are multiple ways they can avoid answering a question. In Bull and Mayer’s study of Thatcher and Kinnock interviews in 1993 they categorised these into eleven super-ordinate categories, that can be divided even further into thirty subordinate categories. The 12 super-ordinate categories are: ignore the question, acknowledges the question without answering it, questions the question, attacks the question, attacks the interviewer, declines to answer, makes a political point, gives incomplete reply, repeats answer to previous question, states or implies that the question has already been answered, apologises, and, literalism.

Examples of Bull’s Typology

When examining political interviews, you can notice politicians implementing the various categories of equivocation. The examples below of Bull’s Typology come from either Cameron vs. Miliband Live: The Battle for Number 10 or The ITV Leader’s Debate 2015. These detail the first nine of Bull’s 12 categories. (The final three will be exemplified in a subsequent post coming shortly.)

1. Ignore the question – this is where the politician ignores the question, doesn’t make any attempt to answer it or acknowledge a question has been asked.

JP – Could you live on one?
DC – I want to create a country 
     where more people have the opportunity 
     of the full-time work they want. [For some people]

2. Acknowledges the question – this is where the politician will acknowledge the question has been asked, but does not give an answer.

JP – ls it acceptable in a rich country like ours 
     that there are that number of people 
     depending on free food aid?
DC – Well, obviously, I want fewer people to be using food banks 
     and I want more people to have 
     the security of a job 
     but we have created 1000 jobs 
     for every day this Government has been in office. 
     Now, that’s a statistic. 
     Behind that statistic are people who are able to provide 
     for their family who are earning a wage 
     who are able to build a better life [for themselves]

3. Questions the question – this category can take the form of a politician clarifying the question, or asking the question back to the interviewer.

JP – This is Cameron and Miliband Live: 
     The Battle for Number Ten. 
     With me now is the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. 
     Ed Miliband, do you think Britain is full?
ED – In terms of immigration?

4. Attacks the question – this category is where a politician attacks or criticises the question, for example they could say the question is hypothetical, is based on a false premise or, it is factually inaccurate.

JP - [Suppose] we got to a figure of 70 million in ten or fifteen years 
     population in this country is that acceptable?
EM – I am not going to get into your hypotheticals. 
     Let me say, I think we can get low-skill migration down. 
     [I will not start speculating].

5. Attacks the interviewer – in this category, which is separate from attacking the question, is where a politician will criticise or attack the interviewer not the question.

JP – [You are doing it again] 
     You are asking yourself a question I haven’t asked you. 
     My question was did you borrow too much? 
     You think, no you did not borrow too much. 
     Did you spend too much? Some programs perhaps.
EM – Now you are asking yourself questions.

6. Declines to answer – this category is where a politician will say they cannot answer the question, for example they could say that they can’t speak for someone else, or they can’t answer the question at the time.

JP – So as it seems to you now 
     there is no figure that you are willing to share with the public?
EM – I am not going to pluck a figure out of the air 
     about the correct level.

7. Makes political point – this category can take a variety of forms, including attacking the opposition, justifying policy or, self-justification. This is arguably one of the most common forms of equivocation seen within political discourse.

JP –[is an increase]in food banks a mark of [success?]
DC –                                         [Well, look] 
     obviously there has been an increase in food bank use 
     that’s partly because of, you know, 
     the difficulties we faced as a country, 
     it’s also, Jeremy, because we changed the rules. 
     The previous government didn't allow job centers 
     to advertise the existence of food banks. 
     They thought it would be bad PR, 
     I thought that was a wrong decision, 
     it was a poor decision, 
     so we allowed them to point people towards food banks 
     if they needed them. 
     But look, the big picture is here 
     we want to get more people [back to work],

8. Gives incomplete reply – when giving an incomplete reply a politician could start but not finish, give a partial reply, or, a negative answer where they state what will not happen instead of what will.

KM – So you think he is a decent enough bloke then. 
     Would you have a pint with him?
EM – I don't know whether we’d have a pint? [It is hard when]
KB –                                                  [Glass of Claret perhaps?]
EM – We’d share a bacon sandwich or something. 
     Look, no, it is hard when you’re in politics, 
     because you see me and him shouting at each other 
     in Prime Minister's questions, it’s not very edifying, 
     let’s be honest it is not a great advert for politics, 
     but as he said earlier it is hard to avoid the back and the forth.

9. Repeats answer to previous question – this category is relatively simple, it is simply when a politician will repeat an answer they have previously given.

NC – Terry asks how we are going to safe guard the NHS 
     for future generation and in view of an ageing population. 
     The NHS is under greater pressure than ever before. 
     But there is a simple question. 
     Who has got the plan to put £8 billion of additional money 
     into the NHS? 
     That is what we all of us standing here have been told it requires. 
     You’re not going to get it in Scotland, 
     the SNP have actually reduced the amount of [money compared]

The interview for Cameron and Miliband Live: The Battle for Number 10 can be watched in full on YouTube.

The interview for The ITV Leader’s Debate can be watched in full on YouTube.

Blog by Jessica Bott, Coventry University. For other blogs by Jessica in this series on ‘equivocation’ see:


Bull, P & Mayer, K (1993) How Not to Answer Questions in Political Interviews. Political Psychology, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Dec., 1993), pp. 651-666

Featured image Mask1 by George Boyce CC BY 2.0