“You’ll need a miracle to win this election”. That assertion by BBC television interviewer Jeremy Paxman to the Conservative leader during the 2006 House of Commons election campaign has been chosen by a British academic to headline a study of assertiveness in political interviewing. Andrew Tolson of De Montfort University, Leicester, set out to find whether the concept of “neutralism” still applied to TV journalists during election campaigns or whether “conflict talk” or “confrontainment” now predominated.

While he finds that not as much has changed over the period from 1983 to 2010 he looks at as some other academics have suggested, the article does provide interesting fodder for political desperates with some great examples of interviewing styles.

Some examples from the data of what Tolson calls “the more problematical, or debatable analytical categories” of interviewing technique:

(i) Adversarial questions that contain face-threatening pre-suppositions:

  • But what do you say to the thought which must worry some people that the elective dictatorship of a huge Commons majority erm should not be in the hand of someone so dogmatic and strongwilled as yourself? (Day/Thatcher 1983).
  • Prime Minister what do you say to those who say and they are not only your political opponents who say that you’re autocratic, domineering and intolerant of dissent? (Day/Thatcher 1987).
  • I want to turn to Europe. How can anyone have confidence in your views on Europe when you keep changing them and appear to be at the mercy of your party or popular opinion? You said in nineteen ninety two “I’m not in favour of a referendum. I don’t intend to put one before the British people on a single currency”. A year ago suddenly you’re forced to concede it because of your party. (Dimbleby/Major 1997).
  • But what are we to make of somebody who advances these positions as apparently cast in stone and then changes his mind on them? (Paxman/Hague 2001).
  • And secondly on the transatlantic alliance what sort of a Conservative leader is it who finds the gates to a Republican White House closed to them? (Paxman/Howard 2005).

Clearly, the first two questions here contain explicit negative evaluations of the IEs personality and turns three and four personally implicate the IE in charges of inconsistency. The last question presupposes a lack of respect for the IE.

(ii) Statements that function as questions:

  • If we go back to the nineteenth of April nineteen seventy nine that happens to be the same date on which you said you had no intention of putting up prescription charges. (Day/Thatcher 1983).
  • Yeh but a non-nuclear policy you accept freely and tell the people openly may mean higher expenditure on ordinary weapons. (Day/Foot 1983).
  • But you’re alarmed that people may vote a protest vote against the Tories that’s what you have clearly indicated. (Dimbleby/Major 1992).
  • Pe-people may believe you’ll be able to do that in five years but you set out as you say er to have very few spending commitments and not to not to er increase tax rates. (Dimbleby/Blair 1997).
  • But you did pledge to […] But you did pledge to rebuild the NHS in five years and that hasn’t happened. You accept that it hasn’t happened. You’ve made a start on it perhaps. (Paxman/Blair 2001).

Statements that function as questions can be heard as requests for confirmation. The statement either refers to a ‘B event’ (something previously said or done by the IE) or explicitly requests an IE response (“You made a start on it perhaps”).

(iii) B assertions

  • You couldn’t hold the Russians with what we’ve got now. (Day/Foot 1983).
  • But you repudiate the nuclear deterrent. (Day/Kinnock 1987).
  • But the ingredients Prime Minister are one thing you’re talking to people who are having their houses repossessed in many cases many businesses that have gone broke many people who are suffering from high interest rates and you talk about ingredients of what looks like a soufflé that won’t rise. (Dimbleby/Major 1992).
  • Well you said you were going to bring taxation down and you put it up. (Dimbleby/Major 1997).
  • But you promised to make this a mass-membership party and you’ve demonstrably failed. (Paxman/Hague 2001).

B assertions contradict the argument of the IE or present a challenge which places the IE in a defensive position and demands a response. The second person “you” is in dominance here.

(iv) A assertions

  • It doesn’t actually say that Mr. Foot what it said was that half the unemployment the rise in unemployment may be ascribed to the world recession. It doesn’t say that the other half is due to Mrs. Thatcher. (Day/Foot 1983).
  • But I could understand if you wanted to leave NATO because it’s a nuclear alliance. I could understand that as a moral position. (Day/Kinnock 1987).
  • But I’m suggesting it wasn’t virtue that led you to abolish the poll tax when you came in as Prime Minister before an election it was common sense. (Dimbleby/Major 1992).
  • How can you say that […] How can you say let me finish the question. How can you say that the burden is going down? It’s not. It’s rising inexorably. (Dimbleby/Major 1997).
  • Well it’s not entirely closed. Because this is a man who is a close and trusted ally of yours. I suggest to you panicked. (Paxman/Blair 2001).

In his conclusion the author quotes the blistering critique of the BBC by the journalist John Lloyd who has suggested that, because all major political parties now subscribe to the neo-liberal consensus, and there are no longer significant ideological differences between them, journalists have assumed the role of the opposition, as it were by default.

Or at least, journalists took on the voice of popular scepticism; a “laser-guided journalism [which] depends on a pervasive contempt for the governing classes, especially for politicians”. This is an interesting argument which now finds more measured support in a growing international body of work by discourse analysts, particularly in studies of TV news. Popular scepticism has become a dominant perspective both in news reporting incorporating interviews with politicians and in “two-way” exchanges between journalists. It was perhaps an editorial shift, rather than “pervasive contempt” that allowed journalists increasingly to take a more intensively “adversarial” stance, but this needs further investigation beyond the scope of this article.

Blame the time zones. Those of us who are keen punters on sports did not need a group of doctors to tell us that flying from Australia and New Zealand to South Africa or from South Africa to Australasia affected a visiting team’s performance. The results of the annual international rugby union contest clearly show it but it has been something of a mystery as to why the long flight back did not have the same impact when the team next played at home.

Now research published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (behind a paywall) shows that elite athletes who cross more than five time zones to compete are around two to three times as likely to get ill as when they compete on their home turf.

In this annual tournament, 14 teams from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand compete over 16 weeks (February to May) at venues in all three countries, and in time zones varying from two to 11 hours’ difference from their own. Games are played weekly to a high intensity international standard, accompanied by three to five weekly training sessions over the 16 week period.

For the research eight team physicians were asked to complete a daily log of any illness that required medical attention for each member of their squad. The rate of illness was calculated for 1000 player days, with the total number of player days across all the teams 22,676, based on squad size x days of play.

In a summary of the findings the researchers say that throughout the 16 weeks of the tournament, 469 illnesses were reported in 187 of the players (just over 72%), giving an overall incidence of just under 21 per 1000 player days. But the rate varied considerably, depending on where the matches were played.

For matches played on home turf before international travel, the incidence was 15.4/1000 player days. But this rose to 32.6/1000 player days for matches played in locations that were five plus hours’ time difference away from home, irrespective of direction of travel.

For matches played on return back home after international travel, the incidence fell back to 10.6/1000 player days.

Almost one in three of all illnesses reported were respiratory conditions (just under 31%), followed by gut problems (27.5%) and skin and soft tissue conditions (22.5%). Infections accounted for most of the reported illnesses.

There was little difference in the number of infections reported for each of the months, although there was a slight fall in incidence during April.

It has been suggested that air travel might explain the higher risk of illness, but if that were the case, infection rates would also be higher after returning home, say the authors—at least for respiratory infections.

“The results from our study indicate that the illness risk is not directly related to the travel itself, but rather the arrival and location of the team at a distant destination,” write the authors. They suggest that various stressors could be involved, including changes in pollution, temperature, allergens, humidity, altitude, as well as different food, germs, and culture.

Some news and views noted along the way.