Grayling’s grilling

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.

Conflictual Questions

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

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.


Appendix: Transcript

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 

Link to the Today programme



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