Richard Madeley knows when to shut down an interview. On ITV’s Good Morning Britain, he abruptly brought his interview with Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, to an end when Williamson refused to answer his question after four strikes.

The transcript below is a good study in equivocation, a technique used by politicians to avoid answering questions directly when those questions pose significant face-threats to the politician. Madeley was pressing Williamson on whether he regretted saying a casual, off-the-cuff remark about Russia telling them to “to shut up and go away”.

Time delays

Time delays can be very useful for politicians when equivocating. The delay in transmission between Williamson (GW), who was at an outside location in Worcestershire, and Madeley (RM), the interviewer, who was in the ITV studios in London, was between 2 to 3 seconds. This shows up in the pauses between Madeley’s questions and the start of Williamson’s answers (line 20), and also in the length of time that Williamson continues after Madeley attempts to interrupt.

01 RM: to shut up and go away
02     do you regret that now
03     do you think that was a bit too er informal
04      (2.8)
05 GW: well I’d like to pay tribute
06     to the health service [personnel
07 RM: [no sorry can you answer the question

08 GW: who’ve done an amazing [job
09 RM: [no no no no no no I’m

10 GW: [in (.) actually look-
11 RM: [I’m sure you do want to pay tribute to them

12 GW: we all-

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Madeley reasserts his role as interviewer and uses the claim that he has asked a “straight question” to direct his interviewee to the question (lines 13-19). Williamson however, after a pause for the transmission, equivocates by talking about the nature of the attack rather than what he had said afterwards (lines 21-27). Madeley interrupts and a period of overlapping talk ensues (lines 28-35).

13 RM: no no Mr Williamson
14     I asked you a straight question
15     we can talk about
16     tributes to the to the health services in a minute
17     d’you regret using that kind of casual language
18     that’s the question
19     could you answer that question please
20      (2.3)
21 GW: well (.) what we saw
22     is we saw
23     an atrocious attack on British soil
24     er you saw (.) British erm y’know
25     British citizen and his daughter that were targeted
26     and actually how we responded to that is
27     the world united behind [Britain
28 RM: [yes d’you regret

29 GW: [and we showed Russia that we wouldn’t be divided
30 RM: [d’you regret telling Russia to shut up and go away

31 RM: Mr Williamson [please answer the question
32 GW: [and actually er by working

33 RM: Mr Williamson (.) Mr Williamson
34     you’re not- just not answering [the question
35 GW: [and by

Madeley then makes the claim (lines 36-49) that the question is on behalf of the viewers and not himself personally. This is the case with interviewers who are often merely “animators” of questions that have been “authored” elsewhere on behalf of “the principal” (Hutchby & Wooffitt 2008, p146). Williamson again refuses to engage with the question and instead repeats line about the nature of the attack (lines 51-55).

36 RM: and I w-
37     Mr Williamson
38     I’m asking the question
39     not on my behalf
40     but on behalf of our viewers
41     so on behalf of the viewers
42     would you please answer the question
43     do you now regret
44     telling (.) a nation state
45     to shut up
46     and go away
47     do you think that was too casual
48     an expression
49     could you please answer that question
50      (0.9)
51 GW: well I I think I think if er
52     I think that what everyone saw
53     is Russia’s attar- er actions
54     against our er our citizens in a er
55     in a city here in the United Kingdom

56 RM: yes you’re telling us [what we know
57 GW: [were absolutely beyond the pail

58 RM: we know what happened in the [city
59 GW: [what the government did

Madeley tries for the fourth and last time with the question. Williamson continues to equivocate.

60 RM: we know what happened in Salisbury
61     we know how atrocious it was
62     we know how close these people came to death
63     THE question is
64     I’ll try it one more time
65     do you regret using very casual Trumpesque language like
66     shut up and go away
67     please don’t tell me what happened
68     cause we know what happened
69     do you regret using that language
70     <that is the question>

71 GW: well what what was right
72     is actually we came together with our allies
73     to [make this absolutely clear to Russia
74 RM: [alright you’re not going to answer are you (.) okay

75 GW: [that they couldn’t act in that behaviour
76 RM: [alright no (.) okay (.) alright

77 GW: [and I think that was the right thing to do

Interview Terminated

At this point, Madeley realises he is not going to get a straight answer and abruptly terminates the interview (lines 78-84), a right that the interviewer has.

78 RM: [alright interview terminated
79     because you won’t answer the question
80     good luck with the the African elephant er project
81     that is an excellent thing to do
82     but erm
83     would be helpful if you answered a straight question
84     with a straight answer

One extra advantage that interviewers have is the right to comment on and discuss the interview in the studio afterwards, a right with the interviewee does not share. Here his co-presenter, Charlotte Hawkins (CH), closes the interview (lines 86-90) and names the interviewee which is standard practice after an interview. But this gives Madeley an opportunity to air his grievances (lines 91-98) with regard to the equivocation tactics shown by the interviewee.

86 CH: that was the er Defence Secretary
87     Gavin Williamson there
88     also joined by Major James Cohen
89     they were talking about troops being deployed to Malawi
90     and not talking about [what he had to say about Russia
91 RM: [what are they like
92     what are these politicians like
93     you give them a straight question
94     it would have been so easy to say
95     no I don’t
96     I think it was an appropriate expression
97     or to say yes probably on reflection
98     I should have perhaps been a little more formal

RM: Richard Madeley
GW: Defence Secretary Williamson
CH: Charlotte Hawkins
Overlap indicated by [

Following the interview, there was some criticism for Williamson in the media for not answering the question. Madeley himself was likened to the fictitious Alan Partridge due to his bumbling and ostentatious style of presenting. Madeley now has a new rule of “three strikes and you are out” for any politician who refuses to answer questions replacing the four strikes he gave Williamson here.

Good Morning Britain, ITV, 29th May 2018

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Hutcbyby, I. & Wooffitt, R. (2008) Conversation Analysis. Cambridge: Polity Press