Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


William Housley and Richard Fitzgerald (2003) 'Moral Discrepancy and Political Discourse: Accountability and the Allocation of Blame in a Political News Interview'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 2, <>

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Received: 8/11/2002      Accepted: 15/5/2003      Published: 31/05/2003


During the course of this article we intend to explore some issues surrounding government policy and actions and the moral organisation of political discourse surrounding the recent enquiry into the BSE crisis and the publication of the Phillips Report in the UK. More specifically, we wish to develop the concept of moral discrepancy and it's use in politically accountable settings, in this case the political interview. The paper, through the use of membership categorisation analysis, explores issues surrounding the social organisation of interview settings, the discursive management of policy decisions and 'bureaucratic mistakes' and the allocation of blame in situated media/political formats. The paper then relates these issues to notions of democracy-in-action, public ethics and the respecification of structure and agency as a members phenomenon.

Accountability; Categorisation; Interaction; Moral Discrepancy; Political News Interview


This paper utilises principles associated with the reconsidered model of membership categorisation analysis (Housley and Fitzgerald, 2002a, 2001, Housley 2000 a,b) and attempts to develop previous work on political talk-in-interaction and moral discrepancy (Housley, 2002b). The paper will initially discuss the general characteristics of the methodological approach identified and used in the course of this paper. The paper will also discuss previous work on moral categorisation and discrepancy as 'truth engines' and strategies for accomplishing 'accountability' within political media/interview settings. Analysis of materials gathered from research into media, policy and debate concerning BSE and the findings of the enquiry in relation to the 2001 election campaign will be conducted. In conclusion, the paper will relate single case observations in relation to wider issues of trust and accountability within democratic social forms. The purpose of this concluding move is not to make any generalist claims based upon a single case analysis per se but demonstrate how such analyses can inform a reflective consideration of related theoretical/analytical matters. To this extent this paper grounds itself within the context of theoretical reflection and analysis of a current example of political discourse within an established institutional setting. Thus the paper assumes that single case analyses of discourse and interaction can stimulate critical reflection and analytic wonder without recourse to generalist claims as part and parcel of an ongoing process of enquiry within a cumulative form of social research. Thus, whilst such claims are not valid in terms of statistical frequency and distribution, or the counting of cases, the analysis presented in the paper hopes to inform the sociological imagination whilst drawing upon locally generated and situated empirical instances.

The Methodological Approach adopted in this paper

During the course of this paper we should like to draw on two interrelated approaches to the analysis of talk-in- interaction. These are known as Conversation Analysis (CA) and Membership Categorisation Analysis (MCA). Recent developments within ethnomethodological analyses of talk have involved a combination of the sequential concerns of Conversation Analysis with the categorial focus of Membership Categorization Analysis (Baker 1984, Eglin and Hester 1992, Hester and Francis 1994, Hester and Eglin 1997, Housley and Fitzgerald 2002a, Watson 1978, 1997). It should come as little surprise that a reconnection of MCA to CA should emerge as both are firmly located within the innovative work of Harvey Sacks (1992 a,b). During the course of this paper the analysis of the sequential organisation of the radio news interview will be investigated in terms of the categorial dimensions of the turn-generated utterances within the talk-in-interaction examined. Furthermore, it will be claimed that the specific categorial features of answer - question formats are central to our understanding of this particular piece of news interview interaction and (potentially) similar settings and practices. An additional consideration here is the normative and moral characteristics of categories and categorisation. Whilst the display of categories and devices are situated events they also display members moral work and normative assessments as a practical and occasioned matter (Jayussi, 1991). Thus, a central methodological characteristic of this analysis is a concern with the categorial and sequential dimensions of talk-in-interaction. A further methodological consideration in this paper is a commitment to a cumulative paradigm of social research (Silverman, 1998, Housley, 2002b). The analysis that follows is a single case analysis, it does not represent an appeal to a statistical frame of validity or a counting of cases. Clearly, such an approach in discourse studies is a valid line of enquiry. Rather, this paper builds on previous exploratory research and thinking as a means of building upon a concern with moral categorisation, accountability and democratic discourse within micro-frames of mass broadcast interaction. The aim here is to build upon a new line of enquiry (Housley, 2002b) that will complement current work and contribute to further studies within a cumulative paradigm of research in which single case analyses contribute to an evolving understanding of the context, setting and phenomenon under investigation.

Political News interviews as sites for doing accountability

The news media is seen to represent an area, a visible field if you like, where 'accountability' and other forms of democratic checks and balances are performed (Fairclough, 1995). Recent debates concerning government policy associated with BSE, foot and mouth, military action, trans- atlantic relations, proposed entry into the euro-zone and so forth have been articulated and re-examined within the ever-expanding space of influence that is occupied by media institutions, programmes and practices. Furthermore, broadcast formats (e.g. radio phone-ins, panel debates and political interviews) are increasingly being held up as sites through which public opinion can be displayed, opinions aired and the 'voice of ordinary people' relayed to politicians and government (Livingstone and Lunt, 1994). During the course of this paper, we will examine a specific dimension of the interactional machinery of policy debate within media settings. The examination of news interview sites has provided a rich vein of enquiry for examining the local organisation of talk and interaction in interview settings (Fitzgerald and Housley, 2002, Hutchby 1996, 2001, Thornborrow, 2001). However, more recently, these sites have been viewed as settings in which various forms of local and situated actions represent broadcast forms of 'witnessable' democratic accountability. Whilst notions of the public sphere, democratic processes have often been located and explored in terms of psephological profiles. The analysis of political media interviews provide access into the procedures and methods through which senses of accountability, the relationship between government and governed and the public sphere can be both locally accomplished and generally broadcast. As noted previously, (Housley, 2002b) such formats preserve a sense of formal immediacy and personal encounter in an age of mass communication.

The Moral Organisation of Political Discourse

As indicated in previous studies talk is suffused with descriptions and forms of categorisation that are moral in character (Jayussi, 1984,1991, Housley and Fitzgerald, 2002a). Indeed categorisation is inexorably moral in character. The terrain of political discourse within media settings is certainly no exception. The use of categories and forms of categorisation form part of the mundane methods used to generate debate, represent public views and feelings and bring elected representatives and decision-makers to account. As demonstrated in previous work (Housley and Fitzgerald, 2001, Housley, 2002b) this accounting work within the interactional machinery of interviews makes use of specific moral devices. These devices are often characterised in terms of a procedural - relational pairing, in the sense that two categories are not only normatively tied, but also that one follows the other. Examples of such moral devices include blame → punishment and intention → action. These devices are common features of much political discourse in which senses of accountability are being pursued; they can be understood as readily available widely understood and sanctioned normative principles. As such they are resources through which actions can be made normatively accountable. Thus, in the context of political news interviews, they are used as cultural resources for generating senses of 'public' accountability. This takes the form of introducing such devices as necessarily relevant and applicable moral concerns and attempting to characterise members of decision making collectivities as those whose actions are predicated upon a discrepancy between the categories of such moral device based pairings. A discrepancy of such pairing, i.e. that in a specific case or set of cases one has not or is not following the other, constitutes a normative breach. In the case of the normative pairing of intention → action we can see how in the case of manifesto commitments an apparent discrepancy between such policy intentions and government actions over a period of elected office could potentially constitute such a normative breach. These 'breaches'; can be used as normatively generated features for further accountability work in political interviews and similar settings as a means of attempting to ascribe further relevant categories to such breaches e.g. untrustworthiness, incompetence or lack of political skill. Therefore, a successful ascription of such a moral discrepancy to a collective such as, for example, a government, is to be avoided. An ascription of moral discrepancy to such collectives is normatively damaging and provides further discursive resources through which such collectives may be questioned, disbelieved or undermined. Consequently, within the context of political discourse in general and news interviews in particular methods are employed in order to avoid such descriptions. These methods may take the form of simple answer management or rhetorical and practical means through which such lines of questioning and forms of moral predication are fudged or resisted.

However, in addition to the specific moral discrepancy device (i.e. intention → action) discussed above and explored in previous work (Housley, 2002b) further moral discrepancy devices can be observed in accountability work in political news media sites and settings. Of particular interest here is the moral discrepancy device blame → punishment. In this paper we will seek to explore the use of this device in a political news interview both in terms of accountability work and management by the interviewer and guest. The materials examined here concern the BSE enquiry and the Phillips report. The Phillips report had suggested that individual blame was not appropriate in the case of the BSE crisis; whilst a culture of secrecy had provided a source of problems in dealing with the crisis at an organisational level.

The following extracts are gathered from a television news, current affairs programme ('On the Record', BBC TV, 11,2,01). In the following extract the interviewer begins to question the guest on the public enquiry into the BSE crisis[1]. The interviewer suggests that the Government will be using the previous Government's handling of the BSE crisis as an electoral resource during the upcoming election campaign.

Example One

Moral Categorisation and Accountability in Political Interviews

The interviewer notes that the potential (suggested) strategy presents a problem for the government in the context of the recent findings of the BSE enquiry and the government response to it. The Interviewer suggests that in fact the response represents a 'problem' (L.3). Namely, that the response does not constitute a clear allocation of blame. This is qualified through the elicitation of a further category, namely that 'no one is being punished for it' (L.3,4). The categories of blame and punishment can be understood to form a moral device which can be heard to constitute a relational and procedural normative pairing; namely blame punishment. This relational pairing is reiterated through the way in which the interviewer affirms the moral device that is being introduced in the opening account; 'nobody is being punished for it, therefore we can assume can we not, that nobody is to blame' (L.4,5). The suggestion is then closed with an affirmation of the second part of the pairing (L.6), 'why isn't anyone being punished'. The introduction of the moral device is characterised by an elicitation of the first (L.4). The interviewer asks why no one is being blamed and characterises such a question as one that is of interest to a 'lot of people' (L.6,7). As this commentary suggests the introduction of the moral device is organised in a specific way. It begins with the first part of the moral equation namely blame, relates the second half of the equation in terms of a relational and procedural pair (blame and punishment) and ends with a question that affirms and displays the second half of the moral equation, namely why no one is being punished for the BSE crisis. It is in this way that the moral device of blame? punishment, within the context of the BSE debate, is introduced by the interviewer within the question/answer format of the political interview. Furthermore, the closing question provides the ground for establishing a procedure for ascribing a discrepancy between blame and punishment within the context of the BSE crisis. In this case, a possible discrepancy being ascribed to government, i.e. between the allocation of blame not resulting in some form of punishment, is one that can be used as a resource for generating potentially damaging characterisations of the government to which the guest belongs. However, in this instance, whilst the option for dealing with such moral device oriented questioning remains a possible strategy, the option of not even recognising the device remains a possibility for the guest. This is a morally dangerous strategy as non-recognition of the moral principle can provide a further resource for the interviewers work of generating accountable responses or characterising government policy and action in an unfavourable manner (Housley, 2002b).

The guests' response exhibits a standard method for dealing with questions that generate potential spaces within which moral discrepancy or a moral vacuum may be ascribed to the collective that the guest represents. In terms of 'answer management' the guest utilises some methods associated with providing a fudged response to morally searching question formats. (Housley, 2002b). The guest does respond to the category bound topic of 'people' by pointing toward the 'electorate' that can be understood to be a relevant co-category of the device 'population'. However, the issue of the allocation of blame and punishment is not referred to. The guest refers to the previous governments handling of the BSE crisis, reflected, it is suggested, by the election result in 1997. This is then followed by a description of the government's 'interim' response to the Phillips report which is characterised as looking forward and 'not to look backwards' (L. 11,12) and to ensure that policies or 'arrangments' are put in place in order that 'something like this never happens again' (L. 13). This category display represents a form of fudged response that utilises topical complexity as a means of responding to the moral device introduced by the interviewer in the account/question format. As stated previously (Housley, 2002b:17) topical complexity can be understood as a ...

... manouvre [that] facilitates multiple local rationalities, hearings and histories of the exchange. After all, it is a design feature of such [broadcast] settings and talk that it is recorded and segments may be replayed and discussed and different claims about what has been meant voiced within different news contexts.

The use of topical complexity may also generate topical incoherence, as opposed to the coherence characterised by informal talk-in-interaction, such incoherence provides the material for fudging the response in terms of a number of alternate category connections that are not directly (although they may represent preferred topics for those being questioned or providing answers in political news interviews) related to the question, in this case questions of the allocation of blame and punishment.

The interviewer responds to this fudged response to the question and moral device that is, from the interviewers perspective and category display, being pursued. The response takes the form of two condensed stories formats that ground the moral configuration of blame ? punishment in terms of specific membership categories. Namely a farmer whose livelehood had been destroyed (L. 15) and a parent 'of a child who had died' (L. 16). The interviewer suggests that members of the same categories would be inclined to allocate blame and deliver punishment (L.18) i.e. they would be oriented to the moral device set up, described and initiated at the beginning of the interview to which the guest has, so far, not recognised or chosen to refer to. The device, in this instance, is expressed in terms of wanting 'somebody's neck on the block for this'. The account is, again, closed with a question, namely that orientation to the moral device of blame ? punishment is a 'human response'. The duplicative organisation of categorisation and devices (Watson, 1997) enables a framing of the moral device blame → punishment within the context of the BSE crisis as one that is both personally realised and topically relevant (the 'farmer', the 'parent') and universally recognisable and understandable ('human response'). This pitches the device not merely as one that is locally specific or particular but as one that is also universal. This is, in one sense a reversal of synedoche, in which particular circumstances (as represented in the condensed stories of the farmer and the parent) are mapped on to universal categories; in this case typical human responses. This represents a powerful re-setting of the device.

Resisting Moral Devices in Political Radio News Interviews

As we have seen in extract one and in previous studies responses to interviewers attempts to ascribe moral discrepancy on to collectives represented by guests can be characterised by fudged responses and forms of answer management that attempt to avoid a moral discrepancy being ascribed to collective or institutional actions (e.g. government policy, handling of a crisis etc). In this case, the interviewer has attempted to search for a discrepancy between the allocation of blame and punishment. However, as suggested by the Interviewer in the opening stages of the interview, it may well be that this moral device/equation is not even recognised; as has been made recognisable in the government response to the Phillips report. Consequently, the initial attempt to explore the discrepancy (L.1,2) is, by the third line of questioning (L.3) more a matter of securing relevance for the proffered device as opposed to exploring possible ascription of it's discrepancy in government thinking or action; although clearly if the device can be recognised such a line of questioning and attempts at ascription can be pursued. However, if the device is not even recognised or is being resisted then such lines of questioning are not open. To this extent the extreme moral formulation 'it's a completely human response isn't it?' (L. 18) can be understood as an appeal to the validity of the moral device being oriented to in this stretch of the political news interview.

Example Two

Resisting the moral discrepancy device of blame → punishment

The guest acknowledges the re- setting of the moral device in terms of the extreme case moral formulation. In terms of recipient design we hear this in the opening of the account 'It is a completely human response' (L.1). Thus, at this stage we hear the guest recognise the moral device blame → punishment. However, the following account not only displays recognition of the device but also resistance to it's applicability to the governments actions. Having acknowledged the device, the guest prefaces the upcoming resistance account to the moral device in the following manner, he states ' Look, I don't intend my answer as a politicians answer' (L.1). This displays a recognisable orientation to the association of politicians accounts with particular properties e.g. evasiveness, or, possibly, fudged responses. The account continues by developing recognition of the moral device in question in relation to the BSE crisis. This is heard at line 3 where the first part of the moral device is made recognisable. However, this recognition is tied to i.) the governments response to the Phillips report and ii.) a response that takes into account the Phillip's report recommendation on the allocation of blame. This partial recognition provides the ground for resisting the application of the device, it's ascription, to the present government policy and actions. The device is resisted through the introduction and display of a different moral category/device. This device does not exhibit relational or procedural (or temporal) characteristics, it is tied to a category of organisation and a particular form of life; namely 'institutional failings' and 'political failings'. The device of 'failings' is a particularly useful rhetorical description as it does not provide a space in which a moral discrepancy can be articulated. Rather failings are attached to institutions, politics, 'the heart of government' but in no way provides room for the ascription of discrepancies or the potential generation of unfavourable evaluations to governmental policy or action by a listening public. The device of 'failings' affords a resource for methods of documentary interpretation that are tied to non-personal processes (politics, institutions) and location (the heart of government). The failings of collective processes and structures enables a form of resistance to the personalised moral machinery of blame and punishment displayed by the Interviewer and eschewed by the recommendations of the Phillips Report.

In the exchange that follows the previous example the interviewer tries once again to deploy the moral device in question.

Example Three

Responsibility, Blame and Punishment

In terms of the previous extract the deployment of the device blame → punishment if duplicatively organised and re- framed in terms of an introduction of a further mode of categorisation; namely 'responsibility'. Notions of responsibility include being accountable to potential blame if things go wrong and an acceptance of the second part of this specific relational and procedural moral pairing. The response to the device, in this case, involves the elicitation of an account that appeals to 'neutrality' and the avoidance of a 'narrow sectarian party point of view' (L.5). However, the appeal to a form of 'neutrality' is prefaced by a specific discursive positioning of the organisation to which the interviewed guest belongs. In this case the government having a responsibility 'to find', 'to respond' (L.3) to the findings of the Phillips Report. Thus, the Phillips Report as a source, document and device of independent enquiry and perspective is affirmed. The interviewer (L.6) responds to this account and the potential topical trajectory of the accountable talk by stating 'well let's try not do that'. The guest continues by re-affirming the appeal to 'neutrality' by categorising any deviation from this reading (in terms of sectarian party political accounts) as one that is 'wrong' (L.7). The device of responsibility and the associated predicates of 'blame ? punishment' is located and re-framed in terms of the structures of government (L.9).

The interviewer responds by characterising the position[s] and form of questioning that is not oriented to this form of accounting work. He suggests that in terms of responsibility the predicated relational pairing of blame → punishment is one that can be tied to civil servants, a membership category of the device 'government structure' (L.13). However, the same account characterises the different way in which politicians (an additional membership category of the device 'government structure') can be punished, in this case the ballot box (L.14). The guest agrees. This provides a contrastive account, namely between civil servants and politicians in terms of the allocation of blame and punishment (L.16).

Politicians can be voted out of office whilst civil servants as co-categories of the proffered blame-negation device of government structure (L.9) are 'still in their jobs' (L.16). Consequently, we can hear how the attempt to generate discrepancy, its resistance through an appeal to the issue of 'structures of government', is transposed and re-branded through an attempt to demonstrate that categories of this device are inconsistent, thus breaking the hearers maxim. The fact that politicians can be 'blamed' and voted out of office is a mode of moral predication that cannot be applied to civil servants. This inconsistency, discrepancy and violation of mundane reasoning is thus established as a means of generating accountable responses and potential readings of the guests answers as morally problematic in terms of the management of the BSE crisis. Namely that people responsible for poor decisions not being held responsible for their actions; furthermore there being no mechanism within the rubric of 'government structures' through which to hold a certain group, in this case civil servants, to account.


The previous extracts and analysis represent a single case analysis of political discourse that build on previous studies and work (Housley, 2002b). The practical organisation and discursive anatomy of political talk-in- interaction within interview settings represents a fruitful means of examining accountability work, and the use of moral resources in conducting such work, in situ. In this section of the paper we wish to explore some theoretical issues surrounding the character of this array of discursive practices. In many respects the accountability talk within political news interviews represents a face to face encounter in which the moral predicates of an individuated form of agency is explored in relation to collective or organisational forms (e.g. the government, relevant ministry/department or regulatory organisation). This is the case with respect to the moral devices of intention → action and blame → punishment to name the two discussed in this paper. We might think of these not merely as resources for generating politically accountable talk, but also as 'norms-in-action'; the mundane resources for generating and accomplishing a sense of public ethicality within media discourse. It may be the case that this represents a form of truth engine that attempts to identify 'scapegoats' or lay blame at the level of impersonal and faceless organisational forces as a means of avoiding the latter. In one sense therefore, in Lumannesque terms, we might argue that such devices are a means of reducing the complexity of the flow of information from the public domain and the workings of government into the communicative space of a media event; in this case the political interview.

However, it may also represent a form of structure vs agency topic or problem; in which the allocation of blame and the realisation of punishment, for example, struggles with a practical, public and deeply ethical problem. Namely, in the case of the BSE crisis are individuals or organisations to blame? And following on from this assertion who should be punished? These questions are not arbitrary but are deeply problematic. In the case of BSE and other manifestations of the 'risk society' (Beck, 1992) we might argue that this is product of factory farming, modernisation and the drive for efficiency at the expense of other factors and variables. We might designate and articulate the problem in terms of a-temporal decision making and the lack of a time perspective the adoption of which may act as an integrative mechanism between nature, the social, culture and communication (Adam, 1995). The solution may well lie in the setting up of new institutions (e.g. technology courts, citizen science juries etc) as a means of making decisions about the application of new technological interventions and as a means of managing risk and the modernisation of modernity. However, the practical ethics of such theorised solutions relegates the moral to the sidelines. As the few examples explored in this case analysis demonstrates, or at least suggests, the moral machinery of accountability struggles with the designation of blame in an increasingly complex sense of the social. This struggle may be compounded by attempts to use various forms of question and answer management that facilitate a form of distorted communication, the interviewer attempting to secure a successful ascription of moral discrepancy whilst the interviewed attempting to avoid it.

The 'gap' between everyday moral reasoning and the complexity of contemporary governance and social forms is, in one sense, visible within the materials examined here. The political interview remains an important framework through which senses of public accountability are accomplished. However, the moral machinery for achieving accountability represents a reduction in complexity that may hamper the serious exploration of public issues. Consequently, whilst moral binary's remain an important way of understanding the world and social organisation and generating a sense of situated accountability they may also represent unsuitable mechanisms for relaying, as opposed to reducing, complex matters within the public sphere. The possible reduction of complex matters (in accountability talk in political discourse and settings such as news interviews) through the use of moral discrepancy devices is a topic that requires further investigation. This paper seeks to build on previous studies and opens up the topic of norms-in-action and the mechanisms for generating accountability within mass broadcast formats to further critical and analytical scrutiny.


1 The findings of the public enquiry into the UK Government handling of the BSE crisis was published in the form of the Phillips Report. The report was widely understood to avoid issues of individual blame and suggested that a 'culture of secrecy' and the structures of government were the principle source of problems in relation to the management and handling of the crisis. It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a full account of the crisis.

Transcript Conventions

I = Interviewer

G= Guest

The following conventions, developed by Gail Jefferson, were used for our transcripts. These conventions denote lapses in time, overlapping talk, pace and in some instances pitch, pronunciation and stress. We have only included those symbols used in the transcriptions.

Numbers in Parentheses: e.g. (1.0) denotes the approximate duration pauses or gaps between utterances in seconds or tenths of seconds.

Point in Parentheses: (.) indicates a 'micro - pause' of less than two tenths of a second.

Letters, words or activities in parentheses: (cough) sounds, words or activities that are distinct or difficult to locate to a particular interlocutor (s).

Square Brackets: [ ] mark the points where talk overlaps.

Full Colons: ( : : ) denote an extension in the vowel or consonant sound in the utterance of a word.

Emphasis: (CAPITALS) indicates specific emphasis and change in volume.

Underlined word: ( as we said) indicates pitch change.

Equals signs: = identifies a 'latching' between utterances, whereby which utterances follow each other rapidly after a preceding utterance.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003