Monday, January 26, 2015

Sunday Politics, Andrew Neil, Natalie Bennet and Jim Murphy: a study

On Sunday 25th Jan Andrew Neil interviewed Greens leader Natalie Bennett on the Sunday Politics BBC show, and then, slightly later, Jim Murphy, leader of Labour Scotland.

Now politics is a rough game, and aggressive questioning is to be expected, especially if you are leading a small radical party that challenges the prevailing corporate consensus. I am not whining or complaining.

However, we do expect balance, especially from the BBC.

So I carried out an analysis of the two interviews.

I scored both interviews for interruptions, minor and major.
Minor interruptions are vocalisations of a few syllables.
Major interruptions are where a fresh question is fired while the previous answer is being made.
I also scored questions which were put when the interviewee had actually finished the point. I have termed these Sequential Questions.

Natalie (NB) had a longer interview (17min 28sec) than Jim (JM), who had 7min 25 sec.
Therefore I divided NB's time by JM's time to get a factor of 2.38 which I applied to JM's score in order to arrive at an equalised score.


JM results are given as equalised values

Minor Interruptions
NB  41
JM  26

Major Interruptions
NB  30
JM  14

Sequential Questions
NB  10
JM  19


Qualitatively, both interviews were probing, as is to be expected, but there is a clear difference in the interruption patterns, which are very important in any interchange.

Minor interruptions are distracting, since they indicate at a subconscious level that the interviewer is bored with what you are saying and wants to hurry you on.

Major interruptions prevent listeners from absorbing what has been said, and handicap the interviewee from giving full attention to the question.

There is a significant difference in the way that these two politicians were treated.

Natalie experienced one interruption every 15 secs, while Jim had one every 30 seconds.
He had twice as much time to make his points clearly.

Natalie had more than twice as many major interruptions, and 58% more minor interruptions than Jim.

Jim also had nearly twice as many occasions where he was allowed to complete his thought before listening to another question.


In this study, there is a significant difference in the manner in which the interview was conducted.

However, despite the disparity in these figures, it is impossible to draw any meaningful conclusion from this one occasion.

Andrew Neil is probably a totally fair interviewer who treats women and men in an even handed way, and is genuinely eager to help the public to understand what the Green Party is trying to say.

He may well also understand fully that our Policies for a Sustainable Society are in no way to be taken as a manifesto for any specific election.  They are a record of political debate in party Conferences dating back to 1973, revised and updated. They are a very long document, and contain much that is excellent, much that is out of date, and also some that is not excellent at all. Whatever, it is totally not the case that the PfSS are to be treated as a Electoral Manifesto in comparison with other parties' electoral manifestos. The PfSS has a different function.

But I digress.

Andrew Neil is probably a splendidly even-handed man, and just happens to vary his approach from interview to interview.

However, the gross disparity that has been shown up in this small study does demand further research. There are in this fine country of ours literally hundreds of media study undergraduates and PhD students who need something to do.

Andrew Neil's interruption behaviour in relation to gender, political stance and other factors is well worth academic study.


Anonymous said...

Thank's for taking the time to make that analysis. It's important to have factual evidence in these matters.

From where I sat, Andrew Neil's behaviour made it very difficult to hear what Natalie Bennett had to say.

Poor journalism.

Richard Lawson said...

Thanks anon. I find interruptions annoying even if I have no money running on the interviewee. It is really difficult to absorb what is being said. Some politicos do need to be cut to size, but it has become a habit, and a pretty stultifying one.

Anonymous said...

Andrew Neil's interruptions in the Bennett interview were down to her not answering the questions he asked and were attempts to elicit answers to those questions. She constantly avoided the questions asked as she clearly realised that the answers were (going to be) embarrassing.

Anonymous said...

You miss the point - Neil was his usual probing self to both people, and neither covered themselves in glory. What turned it into a car-crash for Bennett was that she didn't have the skills to handle such an interrogation, hadn't done even the most basic homework as to how Neil might approach the interview, and didn't know her own party's policies well enough. That's why she was interrupted (although to be balanced - she interrupted Neil as well). It was particularly noticeable that he managed to elicit a commitment from her to do both leaders debates. She clearly hadn't come prepared with a response to a very predictable question, and so was bounced into saying she would do both. Caroline Lucas must be furious with her!

EightFolkPath said...

Hi Richard, this is really interesting - could we republish this on Bright Green? Drop me an email at josiahmortimer[@] if so.

Green Movement co-editor, BG