Belligerent broadcasting: antagonism in media talk”?

We begin with the following exchange from a 2012 interview between BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman and Treasury Minister Chloe Smith; an example of what Richards (2007: 73) calls “Rottweiler” interviewing:

JP: Do you ever wake up in the morning and think my god what am I going to be told today?
CS: I wake up in the morning and know actually that some of my constituents will really value not having to pay that little bit more on fuel prices […] it’s really money in real people’s pockets
JP: Oh we all understand that
CS: Good
JP: Do you ever think you’re incompetent ?

Illustration 1: (BBC Newsnight 26 June 2012)
Illustration 1: (BBC Newsnight 26 June 2012)

This is part of an interview that develops from an interrogation on a proposed cut in fuel prices to a series of face-threatening exchanges (of which this is one) on the Minister’s commitment to the policy and her own suitability for office, including a departure from questioning to the sardonic “Oh we all understand that”. This position from which the interviewer engages antagonistically has been variously described as the “tribune of the people” (Clayman, 2002) and the “public inquisitor” (Higgins, 2010). While the Minister makes her own claim to public representativeness, on behalf of “my constituents” and “real people”, it is notable that the interviewer’s assumed ventriloquism of an exasperated public affords them permission to spice their questioning with a display of contempt.

We argue that such adversarial accountability interviews exemplify the role of “belligerent broadcasting” across various broadcast genres, including news and current affairs, reality and makeover shows. These are emerging practices of confrontation and incivility in media talk dedicated to breaching norms of politeness (Brown and Levinson 1987) in ways that may at first appear to run contrary to what Scannell (1996: 23-24) refers to as the “communicative ethos” of broadcasting to engage as “sociable” by attending to the agreements and pleasures of everyday conversation.

Crucially, we suggest that belligerent broadcasting should be thought of as “synthetic argument”; realized through professional performance rather than stemming from any loss of temper. As such, it is deployed in a controlled and tactical manner, drawing upon an asymmetrical distribution of power that is rooted in public representativeness or expert status. Appropriately weighted expectations of commitment animate the exchanges, from the indignant representation of “the public” in political interviews, through the earnest pursuit of aesthetic perfection in makeover shows, to the mischievous triviality of “banter”. Also, these exchanges vary in their alignment with the convention of “dialogical argumentation” that one proponent seeks to prevail over another (Besnard and Hunter 2008: 10), such that while makeover shows are directed towards justifying the belligerent intervention of the professional expert, broadcast political arguments are routinely concluded without resolution.

Importantly too, while examples of belligerent broadcasting appear to be face-threatening when seen in isolation, they are normally subject to strategies of mitigation within the broader setting of the broadcast text. As well as rituals of greeting and thanks in political interviews (Higgins 2010: 101), instances of provocation and rancor on makeover shows are usually ameliorated by scenes of conciliation and evidence of the belligerence’s restorative purpose (Smith 2010; Higgins et al. 2012).

What we see in many political interviews as the animation of public outrage, we also find on adversarial format of talk shows such as Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle where the hosts act as judge over the members of the public invited to air their problems onscreen, with moral judgments being enacted through performances of indignation, confrontation and the apportionment of humiliation (Livingstone and Lunt 1994; Higgins 2008).

The professional expertise of the hosts/presenters of such shows is also mirrored in programmes that deal with cooking and personal make-overs. Here, the expertise of the host allows them to pass judgment on the hapless participants with little discursive space for responses. In order to maintain their expertise, the host is rarely proved wrong in their advice, and can be shown pressuring the participants into acting in an approved way (Palmer 2004; Smith 2010). In such programmes, the belligerence is therefore enacted using a “therapeutic warrant” (Higgins et al. 2012: 513) that excuses such synthetic argument on the basis that it is directed towards improvement. This scope for the humiliation of interlocutors extends into business broadcasting shows combining game show and fly-on-the-wall documentary qualities, such as The Apprentice and Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares (Ouellette and Hay 2008; Higgins et al. 2011).

However, when power relations between interactants are more evenly distributed, a different form of belligerency becomes possible. In such cases, knowingly insincere arguments may be glossed as “banter”. Banter can be defined as the flouting of Grice’s (1975) maxim of quality – where both participants subsume responsibility to truth to the imperatives of humour and competiveness. Belligerent banter thus becomes a token of in-group membership and a display of sociability. It is found in media genres that mix spontaneous conversation and humour, such as “zoo radio”, and in magazine programmes such as Loose Women, and motoring show Top Gear, from which this extract is taken:

Richard Hammond: What? You’re going to test a car that you built?
Jeremy Clarkson: Yes.
James May: So what are we going to do next week then? “VW tests its new Golf”.
JC: Shut up. I’m going to be completely unbiased, as you shall see.

Illustration 2: (BBC Top Gear, 18 August, 2013)
Illustration 2: (BBC Top Gear, 18 August, 2013)

On the face of it, we see Hammond and May questioning Clarkson’s professional impartiality, followed by Clarkson’s demand that they “shut up”. But the performed arguments on such shows become sources of humour to the knowing viewer or listener, showing how the belligerent strategy at play here can be aligned to irony as a form of entertainment.
In returning to Scannell’s (1996) remarks on the sociability of broadcasting, it would be exceptional for belligerence to be directed towards the viewers in anything other than a fleeting manner. Often, it is enacted on behalf of the viewers, drawing upon particular warrants of responsibility and expertise. In these cases, the advantage in an asymmetrical power relation rests with those that take up various positions on behalf of the audience. However, there are other occasions, where power is evenly distributed between participants, and synthetic argument is dressed in the unthreatening clothing of “banter”. What all these forms do is to highlight not just the reach of belligerence across broadcast talk, but also its scope for the exercise of power and the production of spectacle.

Angela Smith
Angela Smith
Michael Higgins
Michael Higgins










BBC (2001) Paxman-Hague transcript.

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