Political interviewing can be a frustrating affair when the politician being interviewed refuses to answer directly the questions put to them. John Humphrys, a BBC radio 4 presenter and interviewer, gave Chris Grayling, a Conservative MP, a grilling on the Today programme when he questioned him over recent remarks by Boris Johnson, one of Grayling’s colleagues. Johnson had recently compared the European Union to Adolf Hitler in their attempts to create a ‘super state’. Humphrys wanted to know whether Grayling agreed with this position or not. However, Grayling was not ready to give a direct answer and an interesting game of cat and mouse ensued which makes for a useful CA analysis. (The full transcript is given at the end.)
Humphrys was trying to engineer an answer from his interviewee that would generate a TH (Tomorrow’s Headline). A TH in this context would be something along the lines of ‘yes I do agree with Johnson’ or ‘no I don’t’, which could potentially create a headline story. The basic question and answer exchanges went something like this however:
Humphrys: Was Johnson right to compare the EU to Hitler? Grayling: Johnson is a historian
This may seem like an incoherent conversation but it only goes to reinforce my contention that an interviewer can ask any question he or she likes, while an interviewee can answer in any way they see fit. There is no way that we can force someone to say something. Grayling, a seasoned politician, was not going to give Humphrys his TH.
A conflictual question is one in which all possible (direct) answers attack ‘face’. So when Humphrys (JH) asked Grayling (CG) whether Boris Johnson was right in comparing the EU to Hitler, this created a conflict for the politician. To answer ‘yes’ would be to align himself with this proposition. To answer ‘no’ would be to criticise his colleague Johnson who is on the same side as Grayling in the EU referendum debate.
JH: (to CG) 05. er was Boris Johnson right (.) 06. to say that the European 07. wants a stu- er a super state 08. just as Hitler Napoleon Hitler 09. various people did
the “intentional use of imprecise language” (Hamilton & Mineo, 1998) designed to avoid a loss of face.
it appears “ambiguous, contradictory, tangential, obscure or even evasive” (Bavelas et al., 1990)
A typical response to a conflictual question is for the politician to equivocate. Rather than giving a direct answer to Humphrys question, Grayling answered tangentially talking instead about Johnson’s position as a historian. This line of equivocation continued throughout several question-answer exchanges.
11.CG: well Boris is a historian 12. he was making a historian’s comment
Interruptions, overlap and latching
The nature of a conversation can often be understood by the number and degree of interruptions and overlaps that occur. An overlap in conversation is when two (or more) interlocutors talk at the same time. In lines 13-14 below, CG is speaking but JH starts talking at the same time and the two interlocutors overlap for a few seconds. This overlap is can be classified as a competitive interruption since there is no obvious TRP (transitional relevance place) for the interruption.
13.CG: but the [point is= 14.JH: [was he right
Latching can also indicate the competitive nature of the conversation. In lines 157-8 below, CG is speaking. As he finishes, and without any pause, JH starts talking. Normally we would expect a brief micropause between one person finishing their turn and another person taking up theirs.
157.CG: and that’s what people expect= 158.JH: =so mister Heseltine’s wrong
Competitive interruptions are indicated by overlaps and latching. In the interview between Humphrys and Grayling, Humphrys, the interviewer, competitively interrupts many times (lines 14, 22, 25, 43, 66, 70, 79, 94, 124, 134, 142, 158) in his attempts to get Grayling to answer his questions directly.
Grayling, by contrast, often left a brief pauses before he took up his turn indicating that he was being less competitive.
104.JH: I’m asking you whether 105. he was right to do it 106. (1.0) 107.CG: well hhhh
At various points in the interview, Humphrys uses conversational devices in order to try and get Grayling to answer more directly. In line 14-15 he explicitly reminds Grayling of the question that was asked:
14.JH: [was he right 15. is what I asked you
Line 26 appeals to human decency ‘with the greatest of respect’ – in other words ‘you are not being respectful in the answers that you are giving’:
25.JH: [no no it isn't 26. with with the greatest of respect
In line 64 Humphrys let’s out an audible sigh to signal his displeasure at the answers Grayling is giving:
62.CG: well (.) Boris was making a historian’s point 63. [Boris is a historian 64.JH: [((audible sigh))
In line 94, Humphrys explicitly challenges Grayling’s line of answers:
94.JH: [you’re refusing to answer the question=
Despite all of these, Grayling continues to equivocate on the basic question of whether Johnson was right or not to say what he said.
Humphrys allows the interview to close when he runs out of time and realises he is not going to get a direct answer to his question. He allows Grayling some time to make a few general points (162-175), leaves a pause (line 176 in contrast to previous interruptions) before thanking him (177).
Bavelas, J.B., Black, A., Chovil, N. & Mullett, J. (1990). Equivocal communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Hamilton, M. A., & Mineo, P. J. (1998). A framework for understanding equivocation. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 17, 3-35.
01.JH: can I talk to you 02. in your capacity 03. as one of the leading figures 04. in the Brexit campaign (.) 05. er was Boris Johnson right (.) 06. to say that the European 07. wants a stu- er a super state 08. just as Hitler Napoleon Hitler 09. various people did 10. (1.0) 11.CG: well Boris is a historian 12. he was making a historian’s comment 13. but the [point is= 14.JH: [was he right 15. is what I asked you 16.CG: =yes that- ye ye ye ye ye 17. there is a (.) a a clear plan 18. in Brussels (.) as part of the need 19. to support the euro 20. to move towards 21. much greater political integration= 22.JH: =like Hitler did= 23.CG: =but that’s a different story today 24. I mean you’re [you’re 25.JH: [no no it isn't 26. with with the greatest of respect 27. this sort of thing 28. is profoundly important isn’t it 29. if the leading politician (.) 30. says the European union xx 31. draws comparison between 32. the European union 33. and one of the greatest mass murderers 34. in our history (.) 35. that isn’t something 36. we pass over in twenty four hours is it 37. certainly Michael Heseltine (.) 38. doesn’t think it is 39. he was he says it was outrageous 40.CG: well I think Boris 41. has been somewhat mis-quoted 42. but the point [that he was making= 43.JH: [well shall I tell 44. you precisely what he said 45.CG: =was a very different one 46.JH: I wondered if you might say that 47. and I (.) went to the trouble 48. to (get in) the quote 49. Napoleon Hitler various people 50. tried this out 51. and it ends tragically 52. the EU is an attempt 53. to do this by different methods 54. in other words 55. they are trying to do 56. what Hitler did 57. I’m asking you 58. whether you believe 59. that Boris Johnson 60. was right when he said that 61. and (.) if you approve of it 62.CG: well (.) Boris was making a historian’s point 63. [Boris is a historian 64.JH: [((audible sigh)) 65.CG: what [I’m interested in= 66.JH: [was he right to do so 67.CG: =is what the European union itself 68. is trying to do 69. [which is move towards greater 70.JH: [well I’m asking you whether 71. he was right to do so 72. er can we just clear this up 73. and then by all means 74. let’s move on 75. was he right to draw that comparison 76.CG: well was it right for a historian 77. to make a historian’s comment 78. [Boris is a 79.JH: [I’m asking you whether Boris Johnson 80. who was a politician first 81. and maybe he has some er 82. track record as an historian 83. academically 84. but he is a politician 85. a very senior politician 86. was he right 87. to draw a comparison 88. between the European union 89. and Adolf Hitler 90.CG: well as I said 91. Boris Johnson was making 92. a historian’s comment about history 93. [what matters 94.JH: [you’re refusing to answer the question= 95.CG: what matter what what 96.JH: =aren’t you that’s the point 97. I’m ask- 98. look you you know 99. what I’m asking you 100. it is a very very simple question 101. was he right 102. I know what he did 103. you’ve just told me that three times 104. I’m asking you whether 105. he was right to do it 106. (1.0) 107.CG: well hhhh 108. what Bo- Boris was talking about 109. was (.) the reality 110. that there is a drive 111. towards greater political integration 112. Boris was making a historical analogy 113. erm from a historian 114. talking about a a whole range of (actions) 115. since the er since the Roman empire 116. er he’s an historian 117. making a comment [in his own words 118.JH: [mm 119.CG: my view (.) 120. is that we should be most concerned 121. about integration in the pol- 122. er in the European Union 123. [about 124.JH: [right so you’re not concerned 125. that he talks about Hitler 126. in this context 127. the European Union 128. in this context 129. as Michael Heseltine was 130. (2.0) 131.CG: well look er er 132. I’m not going to get into 133. [the discussion between Michael 134.JH: [no well clearly 135.CG: and B- and Boris 136. what I’m talking about today 137. is the government’s agenda 138. er while all this is happening 139. yes we are having 140. a lively debate within the Conservative party 141. [but we’re also 142.JH: [no you’re having civil war 143. according to Michael Heseltine 144.CG: we’re we’re also getting on 145. with governing the country 146. setting out an agenda 147. to deliver a better security 148. for our economy 149. better security for our nation 150. and an agenda that is about driving 151. life chances (.) for people deprived backgrounds 152. that’s what today is all about 152. and yes we’re having 154. a lively debate about Europe 155. but we’re also getting on 156. with governing the country 157. and that’s what people expect= 158.JH: =so mister Heseltine’s wrong 159. when he talks about civil war 160. in the party 161. (1.0) 162.CG: well I want the party 163. to have a proper debate about Europe 164. I want us then 165. whatever the result 166. to carry on with 167. the job of governing the country 168. and today is all about demonstrating 169. that we’re actually doing that 170. that while we have a debate 171. across our nation about Europe 172. we are also getting on 173. with delivering what we were elected on a year ago 174. a manifesto committed to improving life chances 175. of those from deprived backgrounds 176. (1.0) 177.JH: Chris Grayling many thanks The Today programme (BBC radio 4) 18th May 2016, 08:10 approx.
Listen to a recording of the interview
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