Diane Abbott on Question Time

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Diane Abbott appeared with four other guests on Question Time (BBC, 17.01.2019), in a programme mostly dedicated to questions about the Brexit process. She afterwards complained (the i, 21 Jan 2019 P17) about Fiona Bruce’s chairing of the discussion, comparing Bruce unfavourably with her predecessor in the role, David Dimbleby, and with the chair of a similar programme, Andrew Neil. Abbott makes three specific accusations: (1) Bruce got important facts about opinion polls wrong; (2) Abbott was interrupted more than twice as often as her Tory counterpart was; (3) Bruce had ‘wound up’ the audience against Abbott before the programme began.

I am not qualified to address (1), and was not present in the audience so cannot offer an opinion on (3), but complaint (2), about the number of interruptions, is a linguistic question for which evidence can be gained from the programme itself.

An interruption is classically defined (e.g. by Candace West and Don Zimmerman) as an utterance that occurs in a place other than where transfer of speaker is sanctioned by the first speaker coming to the end of a grammatical unit. In other words, speaker 2 is entitled to start talking whenever speaker 1 comes to the end of a ‘sentence’; if speaker 2 starts talking at another time, that is an interruption. The definition is open to amendment. If speaker 2’s talk is supportive (‘Yes!’ ‘You don’t say!’), it is unlikely to be interpreted as an interruption wherever it is placed. Friends often ‘interrupt’ each other without the interrupt-ee appearing to feel slighted. Conversely, an utterance that challenges what speaker 1 has just said, or that diverts the conversation to another topic, is much more likely to be interpreted as an interruption even if it comes at the end of a sentence.

Another important point is that the ‘placement’ definition only really works in casual two-party conversation, where the ‘floor’ passes quickly between one speaker and another. In many situations a speaker may be entitled to speak for an extended period of time, and the rule that speaker 2 may begin to talk at the end of each sentence is suspended. Lectures are one example (the lecturer goes on talking until they explicitly give a member of the audience the right to speak, or at least I do!), and Question Time, arguably, is another. Another quirk of the Question Time discourse rules is that there is a chair (Fiona Bruce) who has the right to nominate speakers and to control the amount of time they have to speak. Speakers may signal that they have finished their contribution (as Diane Abbott does at the end of the programme segment described below by lowering her voice and sitting back in her chair), but the chair may stop them before they do so.

What counts as an interruption matters because it is often interpreted as a hostile act. Men are said to interrupt women more than vice versa (though the jury is still out on this one), and this is said to be an indication of men exerting dominance over women. (In my experience, men who are sensitive to male-female power relations are scrupulous about not speaking at the same time as women during meetings, for example.) Whereas one example of an interruption may not be actionable, if someone is constantly interrupted that could be evidence of aggression and disrespect. The interrupt-ee has a weapon, however, and that is to draw attention to the rudeness of the interrupt-er with metalanguage, such as ‘If you would let me finish’ or ‘That is the point I was making before you cut me off’.

To test Diane Abbott’s assertion that she was interrupted more than her counterpart was, I shall examine both speakers’ answers to the first question of the programme, which was about whether a parliamentary consensus on a UK-EU deal is possible. The question was answered with extended contributions, in turn, from Rory Stewart (Conservative), Kirsty Blackman (SNP) and Diane Abbott (Labour). The other two speakers on the evening were an academic, Anand Menon, and a journalist, Isabel Oakeshott. For the purposes of this discussion we focus on Stewart, Abbott, Oakeshott and the chair, Bruce. (In the examples, a vertical line – | – is used to show overlapping speech.)

Rory Stewart speaks on this question for approximately 2 minutes. During that time, Fiona Bruce intervenes with two utterances. Stewart has talked about parliament needing to reach agreement in a few weeks and then moves on to talk about the need for MPs to be specific:

1. RS: and we’ve got to pin it down to what sentences which bits they do and don’t like | in order to build a majority

After the words ‘and don’t like’ Bruce starts talking:

2. FB: | you say a few weeks the Prime Minister’s got to come back on Monday with some kind of plan

Her second utterance, a question, comes shortly afterwards:

3. RS: it doesn’t feel to me as though we’ll have a majority by Monday I think the-

FB: and what about by the 29th of January

These two utterances can be classed as interruptions. This is partly because of their position – not at the end of a sentence – but also because of their content – they make Stewart change the track of his speech.

When it comes to Diane Abbott’s turn, she speaks for nearly four minutes. On the face of it, then, she is given the floor for about twice as long. There are, however, no fewer than seven interventions. Isabel Oakeshott speaks 4 times:

4. DA: and we heard nothing

IO: well of course Diane because that is not what people voted for

5. DA: she didn’t reach out to the House of Commons as a whole

IO: yeah but hang on Diane

6. DA: it’s important to remind people of that

IO: but why not now why not now

7. DA: one of the easiest things to concede on | because

IO: | but it’s the law Diane

Noticeably, each of Oakeshott’s utterances occurs at a point where, in a dialogue, transition between speakers might be acceptable – Abbott has reached a grammatical end point. This is not dialogue, however, and Abbott might legitimately expect to hold the floor, according to the discourse rules of Question Time. In addition, Oakeshott’s utterances contradict the points Abbott is making – they are challenging utterances.

Twice, Abbott uses metalanguage to signal that she has interpreted Oakeshott’s utterances as interruptions:

8. DA: Just let me finish

9. DA: If you’ll just let me finish

Fiona Bruce speaks 4 times during Diane Abbott’s answer. On the first two occasions she speaks immediately after an intervention by Oakeshott:

10. DA: …the House of Commons as a whole

IO: yeah but hang on Diane

FB: but you’ve got a situation now

11. IO: But why not now why not now now is now there’s no point in harking back

DA: it’s it’s if you’ll just let me finish

FB: Jeremy Corbin said you have to talk to people with whom you profoundly disagree

Although Bruce here does not interrupt Abbott – that has already been done by Oakeshott – by joining in the interruption, as it were, Bruce appears to align herself with Oakeshott and against Abbott. Intentional or not, this challenges the chair’s neutrality.

On the other two occasions she overlaps with Abbott’s speech, repeating the same point:

12. DA: she hasn’t conceded it and | if I was a manufacturer

FB: | you know it’s not the easiest thing for her

13. DA: but members of her own cabinet don’t want it | members members

FB: | you know it’s not an easy thing for her to concede

There are a number of reasons to interpret these utterances as interruptions and not simply supplementary questions. The first (example 12) starts after ‘and’ – not the end of a grammatical unit. The second (example 13) does come at the end of a grammatical unit, though Abbott clearly wishes to continue speaking. More important is the content – as with her interventions during Rory Stewart’s answer, Bruce forces Abbott to return to a point she has made earlier (that taking ‘no deal’ off the table is easy). A final point is that telling Abbott what she knows – making an assertion about her private thoughts – can in itself be interpreted as aggressive.

So what is the conclusion, based on this segment of the programme? Both Rory Stewart and Diane Abbott are interrupted by Fiona Bruce. Stewart is asked two questions; Abbott is asked three and the third is repeated. On this evidence, Abbott is interrupted twice as much as Stewart is. In addition, though, Abbott is interrupted by Oakeshott four times. Oakeshott’s utterances would not be counted as interruptions in an ‘ordinary’ conversation, but the different discourse rules for Question Time make them interruptions in this context.

The effect of these interruptions is notable, and relates to the notion of ‘holding the floor’. Rory Stewart holds the floor for two minutes. Even though he is challenged by Fiona Bruce, and has to amend his answer accordingly, he does not lose the floor. Although Diane Abbott’s answer, from start to finish, lasts twice as long, she does not hold the floor for nearly that long. Her answer is repeatedly diverted by interruptions from two people, who in places give the impression of ganging up on her.

The verdict? Fiona Bruce, as the chair, has the right to direct the discourse and to interpose questions, even if doing so constitutes an interruption. But she also has the responsibility to manage the interaction between the other speakers. Isabel Oakeshott was out of line and should have been told to wait her turn. Now, in fact, for all sorts of reasons, my impression of the programme is that Rory Stewart came across as a better speaker than Diane Abbott. He looked at the audience, used open hand gestures, and he deflected discussion from his party leadership by talking about his own viewpoint (‘I think…’, ‘I hope…’, ‘I pray…’). Diane Abbott looked at the ceiling rather than the audience and spoke for her party rather than for herself. But it is also true that she was simply not given the floor in the way that Stewart was. And whether or not the audience were biased against her, the makeup of the panel certainly worked in Stewart’s favour. During Abbott’s answer, Stewart simply grinned while Oakeshott fought his battle for him, whereas Abbott and the SNP panel member (Kirsty Blackman, who incidentally was an extremely effective speaker) were not sufficiently in agreement to form an alliance. In all these respects, Diane Abbott’s complaint was justified.

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