Three words and 0.7 seconds: Not much time for a Minister

A lot was made on Twitter of Helen Whatley’s appearance on Sky TV this morning. The claim by some distractors was that Whatley was saying that the government could blame scientists for mistakes made in the COVID-19 policy.

Within ten seconds of listening to the discourse, however, it was clear to me that this is not what she meant to say. (And I believe that most people could easily reach this conclusion.) Face-to-face discourse goes pretty fast and Whatley misspoke for three words and 0.7 seconds! Not much time for the Minister but plenty of time for her opponents.

KB: you can't stick this on the scientists
HW: well (.) well I can

It is clear however from a close analysis of the discourse that Whatley, MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, did not mean what she said and attempted to retract her answer. We all misspeak from time to time. It is part of spoken discourse. We sometimes answer questions that we think we heard rather than what was asked. We have a right to retract what we have said. Let’s see how Whatley tried to do this.

I have transcribed the conversation between Whatley (HW) and Burley (KB) as it appeared on Twitter. You can listen to a recording by clicking here on the external link to clip or below the transcript.

The ‘offending’ line is 13 where HW says ‘well I can’ in response to KB’s statement ‘you can’t stick this on the scientist’. That is three words and 0.7 seconds of discourse. The obvious interpretation at first is that HW believes the government, of which she is a member, can stick the failures of the coronavirus strategy on scientists.

However it is clear that she immediately tries to retract this from line 15 onward. The retraction is masked somewhat by the interviewer’s exasperation at HW’s reply. For some time there is overlap and a fight for control of the floor.

HW eventually gets a clear floor from line 43 onward where she then tries to explain the answer that she should have given.

01 KB: it was policy
    it wasn't clinical judgment
    it was policy
05 HW: er so and as I said at all points in this
    we follow the scientific guidance
    [as to xx what was the right thing to do
KB: [and then you make the policy
    you take their advice
10  and you make the policy
    you can't stick this on the scientists
HW: well (.) well I can 
15  er (I mean) xx I'm not 
    [I'm not saying
KB: [you can stick it [on the scientists
HW:                   [no 
    er no no no 
20  that's not what I mean to say
KB: you just [said xx
HW:          [what I mean to say
    hhh (.)
KB: you just said 
25  [I can stick this on the scientists
HW: [xx xx but
    [either you can or you can't
HW: [no no xx
HW: to be clear (.)
30  that is your words (.)
    that is your words
KB: no you said (.) 
    [you can
HW: [that's not
35 KB: [I said can you
HW: [xx xx
KB: [you can't stick this on the scientists
HW: [xx xx xx
KB: and you said you can (0.4)
40  [I didn't put that in your mouth
HW: [which is why I immediately
KB: you said it
HW: which is why I immediately said (.)
    what I mean to say
45  is we have taken the scientific advice (.)
    at every stage of this process
    we've taken the scientific advice 
    and then
    the judgement is made about
50    whether this is the right decision to take

External link to clip

Spoken discourse is rarely an exact science. People hesitate, make slips and sometimes misspeak. It helps us all if we work to establish what has been said through collaborative discourse.

Sky News, 9th June 2020

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