Politics is an area in society which is accepted as an important aspect of our lives. It governs our country and, as a result, affects how we conduct our everyday affairs. Since the commercial availability of television, politicians have had the opportunity to express party views, promote their manifesto and justify controversial actions. Live interviews have allowed the nation to put forward questions they want answered, significantly progressing the basis on who we decide to vote for to govern our country.
These interviews are perhaps most notable on Newsnight, hosted by Jeremy Paxman. Paxman became a presenter of Newsnight in 1989 and has since been a pioneer in the interrogative style used to unnerve his interviewees.
This topic is of particular interest due to the nature of the interaction between a representative of the audience (the interviewer) and the politician. In many cases, it is evident that politicians adopt a tactful stance when answering questions in order to prevent perceptions and retain popularity.
Interviews often gain entertainment value when questions are put forward that place the interviewee in a difficult stance, and more so when an attempt is made to divert the topic to suit the interviewees position. This is a typical method used in order to gain control of conversation, and power struggles for the ownership of a conversation are regularly detectable.
Studying this topic will allow an analysis of the interviews to be made. This can help determine whether language used conforms to the ideas of theorists such as Tannen, who states that, for men, the world is a competitive place in which conversation and speech must be used to build status or “gain the upper hand”.
Trudgill’s theories can also be explored; in particular, his belief that men would often use a low prestige pronunciation – thereby seeking covert prestige by appearing “tough” or “down to earth”.
Both Paxman and the political interviewees will display typical male speech to gain dominance and authority over the conversation.
The aims will be to:
– Investigate how ‘male’ language is used to assert ownership of a conversation
– Compare my findings with research on male gender language from theorists such as Tannen and Trudgill.
For this investigation, secondary source data was gained in the form of two individual transcripts of Newsnight interviews between Paxman and George Galloway and Theresa May. These were obtained from the internet as opposed to being recorded from live programmes for numerous reasons. Firstly, the recording of transcripts is time consuming, thus meaning it would not have been viable to collect primary data from live programmes. Researching readily available transcripts allowed a range of interviews to be read, meaning the most linguistically interesting extracts could be used. Five possible transcripts were collected, and of that, two were chosen for further analysis.
A male politician and female politician were used in order to gauge differences, if any, in the language style used, and whether this had a profound effect on the effectiveness of dominance in conversation. Had two male politicians been selected, it would have been hard to conclude that the language used was typically male as there would be no reference for comparison. Despite the fact that only qualitative data will be used, the analysis that can be made from these sources will be sufficient in meeting the aims and proving or disproving the hypothesis. Quantitative data is largely irrelevant for this investigation.
To ensure validity, the transcripts have all been sourced from the reputable news websites. The BBC is the producer of Newsnight, so there is little chance of alteration or manipulation of the transcripts to portray a subjective view. The BBC is also fairly reputable in their political neutrality. This cannot be said for The Telegraph, where Theresa May’s transcript was sourced. However, both Theresa May and The Telegraph hold conservative views and therefore alteration is also unlikely.
In terms of the ethicality of the data collected, the participants, being Jeremy Paxman and the three politicians, would have been aware that they were being filmed and broadcasted. Therefore, their consent would have been given at the time they were recorded and quoting extracts from the transcript will be ethical.
In order to satisfy my aims, I will explore a variety of qualities that make up the linguistic framework such as the interactional, grammatical, lexic-semantic, syntactical and phonological features.
The first data extract is from a Newsnight interview between Jeremy Paxman and George Galloway on the 5th May 2005. The interview was conducted shortly after George Galloway gained a seat for the left wing political party “Respect” in Bethnal Green and Bow, replacing Labour MP, Oona King. Paxman initiates conversation by addressing the audience with the clause “We’re now joined from his count in Bethnal Green and Bow by George Galloway”. The contraction ‘we’re’ provides unity and sense of cohesion between the interviewer and audience, perhaps done so in order to entice prejudicial bias.
The question “are you proud of having got rid of the very few black women Parliament” is then asked. The adjective ‘proud’ infers a sense of pleasure or satisfaction over a particular action, which Galloway dismisses immediately with the simple sentence “What a preposterous question”. This matter of fact statement allows Galloway to gain ‘high ground’ as it addresses the absurdity of what is essentially an accusation of racism. As a result, a role reversal can be seen.
Galloway uses the personal pronoun ‘you’ to pose a question towards Paxman. This is perhaps the first clear evidence of a battle of ownership of the conversation and conforms to aspects of Tannen’s theory. She argues that conversation for most men is a primary means to preserve independence, and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order, opting for a ‘report’ stance as opposed to a females ‘rapport’ stance. A battle for social hierarchy can be seen when Paxman avoids answering the question, with the ironic and somewhat hypocritical reply “You’re not answering that one?”. According to Tannen, competition for status drives men; therefore they are more at ease with conflict. Galloway proves this theory when conflict arises after telling Paxman to “move on to [his] next question”. The imperative command “move” acts as an order, thus challenging Paxman’s control over the interview. This can be supported with Tannen’s theory of male language using orders, whilst women would use proposals to communicate a desire.
A bid for higher status can be seen when Galloway states “If you ask that question again, I’m going, I warn you now”. This goes against the norm of interview etiquette in that the interviewer has been challenged. The response “Don’t try and threaten me Mr Galloway, please” reveals numerous techniques in attempt to restore protocol.
The verb ‘try’ suggests Galloway failed in issuing the threat. Furthermore, the use of the title Mr and the politicians surname is excessively formal for use during the middle of the conversation, perhaps done so to assert prestige. This could have also been done in attempt to belittle Galloway, yet this is undermined by the adverb ‘please’. This changes the sentence from a command to a request, and the position of the word at the end infers an afterthought from Paxman. Galloway diffuses the intensity of the exchanges by replacing the verb ‘threaten’ with ‘badger’ – “You’re the one who’s trying to badger me”. The connotation of annoyance from this word infers the severity of the interview is little more than a quarrel to Galloway. This could be a dismissive strategy to highlight Paxman’s trivial retaliations.
Towards the end of the interview, Jeremy Paxman again insinuates that Galloway’s motives were to insight racial tensions. At this point, George Galloway deviates from response and again directly confronts the questioning- “You are actually conducting one the most – even by your standards – one of the most absurd interviews I have ever participated in”. Use of the parenthesis “even by your standards” shows Galloway is aware of the language techniques Paxman employs, as if trying to lure the interviewee into giving a desired response. This indicates the demise of the interview as the off topic nature shows a refusal to answer.
An attempt to win authority of the conversation is made with the simple sentence “I have just won an election”. This comes as a declaration of power and popularity, which arguably, portrays Galloway in an egotistical light, yet proves supremacy nevertheless. Paxman’s response “I’m not insulting them, I’m not insulting you” displays subtle male gender language. The contraction “I’m” leans towards ‘Covert prestige’, a theory first introduced by William Labov. The language, despite being inferior to the formal “I am”, suggests a more secure and less socially aspirational stance, conveying a “tough” or “down to earth” message.
Peter Trudgill’s research in the 1970s into language and social class also comes to similar conclusions in regard to covert prestige. The role reversal of questions by the interviewee and answers by the interviewer continues as Galloway asks for congratulations on his victory. Paxman’s response is one of obedience, and offers his congratulations, possibly to appease Galloway and regain focus. However, before the next question can be presented, the politician thanks Paxman before removing his microphone and leaving the studio. Due to this, the language used towards the end is perhaps misleading, giving the impression that Galloway successfully used male language to assert dominance. However, the hasty exit infers escaping any more questioning, and consequently, it could be assumed Paxman retained higher ground.
The second extract is between BBC Newsnight interviewer Jeremy Paxman and Theresa May in which the home secretary repeatedly refused to disclose whether she knew in advance about George Osborne’s child benefit announcement. When Jeremy questions May “when was this policy actually cooked up?”…”when did you first learn about [the policy]?”, the politician responds “Well, you use terms like cooked up as if somehow this was just something that was done on the back of an envelope.” “Well” serves as a hedge word which Robin Lakoff (1975) classified as a key assumption of language used by women. Doing so gives an appearance of weakness yet it could equally be an indication of respect for the other speaker by offering some courtesy.
Another key assumption that can be identified in this initial response is the intensifier “just”. The use of the verb before the adverb “something” de-intensifies meaning and infers that Paxman’s questioning was irrational. The confidence of May is undermined by her inability to express her thoughts as she starts “This is, we have been having to make…” before being interrupted by Paxman. This conforms to the idea of the Dominance Theory, in that in mixed-sex conversations, men are more likely to interrupt than women. In this sense, it is evident that ‘male’ language has been used to gain an authoritative stance whilst Theresa May appears weak upon initial impression.
The interruptions from Paxman continue throughout the interview with the repetition of the question “When did you first hear about it?”. May’s response deviates from what the interviewer wants by trying to put across the information she desires instead. Whilst answering with “Tax and benefit decisions…”, use of the additional phrase “as you well know” suggests Paxman is playing a game for entertainment value. In this sense, Theresa may gains an improved stance over the conversation as it is suggested to the audience that Paxman holds no real substance to his questioning. In a tactful reply, Paxman puts questioning on hold by making the conclusive statement ” So you first heard about it on breakfast television yesterday?”. After May’s reply “no”, interruption and the same questioning is then continued, giving the impression of a futility in Theresa’s avoidance.
Paxman later introduces the same question, beginning with “Now”. This preposition of time shows Paxman’s want of immediacy and quickening of pace. This could perhaps be an impatience developing from the interviewee, which would contradict the belief that he has control over the conversation.
Another technique Paxman uses is referring to May as a “senior member of government”. This choice in mode of address reminds the audience of the politician’s position. The connotations of power and intellect are intertwined, and thus failure to answer gives the damaging impression to the audience that she is not fitting for her job.
May’s perceived level of intellect is again weakened when Paxman asks for the final time “my question is, obviously, did you know in advance”. The adverb ‘obviously’ conveys a demeaning tone, and is used to summarise the theme of the interview. Despite this, Theresa May remains relentless in avoiding to give a direct response. Ownership of the conversation is arguably the interviewers as a result of this, yet Paxman’s failure to withdraw the desired information perhaps suggests otherwise.
Furthermore, when Paxman states “you haven’t tried to give me a date so far”, May seizes upon the opportunity to make a humorous response “Oh, you’re asking me for a date, Jeremy?”. This alteration in level of tone is in recognition of the fact the interview has become trivial, and the laughter that follows from both members indicates a transition to informality. As a result, it can be deduced that possession of authority remains disputed. The interjection of humour does however conflict with Lakoff’s belief of a lack of “sense of humour” from women, and thus the appropriateness of theories can be questioned.
From the two extracts, there is strong evidence to suggest that the ‘ownership’ of a conversation is very much determined by the use of typical male speech. In data extract one, between two males, the struggle for dominance is apparent, and both members employ a variety of linguistic techniques in order to do gain high ground. Covert prestige and want of status are both seen which conforms to ideas from theorists such as Tannen and Labov. However, more subtle features such as use of personal pronouns were used in gaining authority.
In comparison, extract two between Paxman and May shows a more weighted conclusion towards Paxman in ownership. Theresa May, despite successfully avoiding answering Paxman, showed several weaknesses which can be highlighted in her initial response of the extract. Use of hedging and intensifiers revealed insecurity in her position within the interview, and the inability to confront the repetitive questions suggests a defensive position.
Consequently, the findings concur with the hypothesis in that ‘male’ language is used to assert ownership of a conversation. When two males are in conversation, ownership is hard to distinguish whilst between a male and female, analysis suggests it is generally one sided. Overall, the theories do apply to the analysis that is made, but it is inevitable that language traits from both genders will be seen in all speech, as the humour from Theresa May proved.
The choice of two extracts allowed me to gain an in depth analysis on the language used in more that once case, thus improving the reliability of my findings and allowing me to establish generalisations. However, the level of analysis was limited in that only one male-male extract and one male-female extract was used. It was my intention to include a mixed gender interview, despite the aims being male language orientated, so the effectiveness of male language in asserting authority could be gauged against a control (female language). Yet the use of two extracts means that generalisations can’t realistically be drawn from the findings. Use of a third extract would have allowed me to confirm concordance in analysis making the results more valid.
Having said this, it can be assumed that interviewers, in this case Jeremy Paxman, do not always dictate the way an interview is conducted, as politicians deviate from questions posed by stating information that helps their political stance, despite this often being irrelevant. This investigation does help contribute to the idea that men still retain an air of dominance in language use, perhaps suggesting men and women are not on a level playing field in the practice of, in this case, politics. However, due to the limitations in the amount of data used, such an assumption is questionable.
The fact that women do play a very large part in politics in modern society poses the question – are male language traits adopted by females in order to establish equality, or are other techniques used to earn powerful positions. This would be a possible avenue for future research. Some would say the use of language to express an idea is extraneous, but rather it is the significance and quality of the idea that gains a position of authority.