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Interview Of Speech

According to Labov and Fansted (1977:30), an interview is “a speech event in which the person, A, extracts information from another person, B, which was contained in B's biography”. From this definition, it seems plausible to argue that interviews irrespective of its setting or function are based upon power relationships whereby A controls the structure and content of utterances of person B due to the institutional/social hierarchy they attain. For example, in achieving the institutional goal of eliciting voluntary confession from a suspect, primary interviewer officers (pio) employ linguistic devices that allow them to maintain power over suspects utterances whilst ensuring that suspects produces a voluntary confession with minimum police input (Heydon, 2005:50).

This essay will examine the unequal relationship of pios during suspect interviews and the ways in which some suspects have resisted the former. To do this, I will discuss how interactional structures employed by pio during turn-taking in the opening and closing, topic management and how police construction of suspect's events elevate the role of pio to a higher position of authority over suspects during interviews. The second half of the essay will explore the resistance strategies employed by suspects when asked information seeking and confirmation seeking questions by police interviewers, extracts from Harold Shipman's interview will be analysed to demonstrate my arguments.

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Before analysing the institutional features of police authority over suspects, perhaps it would be beneficial to highlight how everyday conversations differ from structured talk events. One major difference between everyday conversations with friends and structured communication events such as police and suspect interaction is that the status of the latter participant is unequal to the former. With status comes power in conversations; the powerful can readily influence the outcome of the conversation by introducing the topics discussed, asking questions, disagreeing with the other participant; the less powerful cannot (Shun, 1998:7). The reason why this asymmetry is important is evident when one explores the goals of police interrogation and the language used to attain those goals.

How turn-taking within the opening and closing of police interviews create unequal power relations over suspects will now be explored.

Heydon (2005:94) observes that through the tri-partite interview framework (opening, gathering information and closing), pio are able to take control over turn shapes during the opening and closing structures because there are certain information which ought be provided on ‘record' by the pio in order to establish legitimacy of the suspects confession. To ensure that pio adhere to institutional legislative requirements, opening and closing sections of the interview are used to inform suspects of their rights and obligations. Also within this opening and closing turn shapes, are participatory frameworks (P12R) whereby the roles of the pio and the suspect are assigned. In Heydon (1997), it was suggested that when police officers make formal utterances during interviews (e.g. acknowledgment of the time of interview), they are taking on the role (Goffman 1974) of the author and principal on behalf of the police institution and not themselves. This is because pio are legally bound to utter certain words not because they personally created the utterance and decided to use it (authorship); rather those utterances are strict legal requirements of the institution (principal). Thus, the role in which the police officer personally takes is that of an animator and “information provider” (Ibid). The suspect is allocated the role of the “respondent”. That is, in each interview the pio on behalf of the institution asks the suspect questions, the turns are initiated by the pio (First Pair Part); in return the suspect formulates their response (in the Second Pair Parts) (Heydon 2005:95).

In sum, pio maintains control over suspects in interviews because participants orientate to a structure whereby the FFP are allocated to the pio and the SPP are allocated to suspects. In cases whereby the suspects deviate from this answer-question format, pio are still able to formulate sequences, which allow them to maintain the role of the interviewer in the opening and closing sequences.

As well as the police interviewer endowing ‘interactional authority' over suspects through opening and closings of interviews, pio's can also achieve control via topic management. Jefferson (1984, 1988) argued that in everyday conversations, changes in topic is achieved in numerous ways, however, during an institutional setting like that of the police where turn-types are pre-allocated, the speaker imposes restrictions on the maintenance of topics by participants (Applied linguistics and communities of practice :82).

I will now consider how suspects followed by pio initiate topic management. This section will provide further analysis into the authorative voice of the pio.

Heydon (2005) states that sometimes suspects' initiate new topics by providing “Multi-component answers”. This allows the suspect to provide additional information that has not been initially requested by the interviewing officer when in reality a direct response is required. Frankel (1990) describes this multi component answer approach as one which not “only provides an option as to which portion of the information will be retrieved in the next turn” but one which minimally obligates the interviewer to produce a response to the information provided. An example of this approach is demonstrated in Extract 4-4 INT1 (Heydon 2005:101).

48. pio1: What sort of connection do you have with the shop^

49. SPT1: (ARROW) (1.7) nothin Betty and I we've

50. arrow) aw we've been together for nine years de facto


51. pio1: w'l who's* Betty

52. SPT1: (0.5) Fisher^

The first component of the suspect's response on turn 49 is a single word: (1.7) nothin could have comprised a complete response to the pio question in turn 48. Instead, appended to this was the suspect-initiated information that expanded upon the first word.

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Although there are many other ways in which pio can initiate topics over the course of the interview, I will explore two devices available to pio when constraining available topics. Firstly, the utterance used by the pio at the opening of the interview can describe his/her intention to interview the suspect in relation to the alleged crime in which the suspect has been arrested. An example of this is given below in Extract 4-16 INT10 (Heydon 2005:112).

22. Pio: right

23. (1.4) I'm going to interview in relation to (0.3)an indecent act

24. that (.) allegedly happened in January this year

25. (0.) before I do I must inform you that you are not obliged to do or say anything

26. but anything you say or do may be given in evidence =>

27. do you understand that

28. SPT10: yes =>

The second method of topic initiation available to pio is the ‘discoursal indicator' (Thomas 1989) whereby police interviewers' delineate the parameters of the discourse and restrict suspect's contributions to within those boundaries. For example, by gathering information about the alleged criminal activity, the pio has restricted the topic of the subsequent interview to the particular alleged criminal activity of the suspect (Heydon 2005:155).

I will now draw upon the ways police interviewers construct their own preferred version of events (Auburn et al 1995) as an alternative to the suspects', specifically focusing on the formulation of suspect's version of events. Again, this discursive practice allows pios to maintain power over suspects during interviews.

Heydon argued that there is a tendency for pio to produce formulations of the suspect's turn that displays a shift towards words and phrases that appear more violent than those used in the suspect's original version. For example, in Extract 4-36 INT1 below, the pio overtly reconstructs the suspect's version of events by replacing the suspect's phrases with more violent verbs such as hit in turn 289 and smashed in turn 295; the suspect's original terminology was give. The formulation of the verb smashed by the pio implies brutal force on SPT1's part, thus this makes a stronger case of intentional assault.

289. Pio1: well you've hit him on the -

290. (.) with your right ha:nd =>

291. to almost the right side of his face

292. (0.9) pretty much at the front =>

293. at the right side => // and * you've

294. SPT1: right =>*

295. Pio1: smashed his front tooth out completely =>

(Heydon 2005:138).

In conclusion, the discursive practices explored here demonstrates that through turn-taking in the opening and closing, topic management and constructions of suspect's events, police interviewers are able to take the floor of power over suspects.

However, ways in which suspects, particularly Harold Shipman have attempted to resist police constraining and coercive questioning will now be analysed. Harold shipman is being questioned over the suspicious death of his female patient whom he had allegedly murdered through morphine overdose.

According to Gibbons (2003:95), the aim of police questioning is to elicit genuine information and to obtain confirmation in a particular version of events that they had in mind. This aim can be achieved via asking suspects information seeking and confirmation seeking questions. Information-seeking questions can be classified in terms of the information gathered from suspects upon request, whilst confirmation-seeking questions refers to the extent in which the suspect was coerced into agreeing with the proposition contained in the interview questions.

I will now discuss how these forms of questions were resisted by Shipman.

Confirmation seeking questions occur where the interviewer constructs the series of event using a “declarative mood” and then asks the suspect to confirm or deny that version of event by answering with a yes or no response. Maley (1994) observes that this form of questioning exerts great pressure on the suspect because the language used within the question and context in which the question is asked requires minimal response. Additionally, Maley argues that there are three types of question that seek confirmation: declaratives with tags, tag questions and bare declaratives. These questions will now be briefly examined in terms of how they seek confirmation in Shipman's interview.

Declaratives with tag are questions, which are similar to tag questions; they take on finite/subject form that contains requests for the respondent to agree with the preceding proposition. Turns 25, 27, and 29 of the interview transcript below contain examples of this type of question (P= Police, S= Shipman).

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25) P: There's certain facts that I need to make you aware of at this stage.

I don't think there can be any dispute in a lot of them

Mrs Mellor's body was buried on the 18th May 1998 at Highfield

Cemetery, Stockport. Would you accept that from me?

26) S: If you say so.

27) P: Now would you accept that the body of Mrs Mellow was exhumed with

consent of the Coroner on the 22nd of September this year?

28) S: If you say so

29) P: And I think, from what you were saying earlier, you were aware

that a post-mortem examination was subsequently undertaken.

Certain samples were taken at the post-mortem for forensic

analysis. Would you accept this?

30) S: You're telling the story, yes of course.

(Newbury and Johnson 2006:219)

This type of questions is intended to prompt respondents to make a brief comment on the validity of the proposition and confirm the version of events presented in the question. As they are less confrontational than tag questions, they minimise resistance. In the extract presented, each statement is attached to question form (italicised) that has the structure Finite + Subject + Residue and functions to request S to confirm facts of the case. For example would (finite), you (subject) accept that from me (residue). The interpersonal modality in turn 25 because of the word would diminishes the coercive effect as it reduces the pressure on the suspect to accept or deny the allegations by softening the suspect's demand to accept or deny the interviewer's propositions. Perhaps it was not surprising that S avoided answering the questions as highlighted in turn 26 and 28 “if you say so”. The same resistant tactic is used in turn 30. By avoiding agreeing with the details commonly accepted, Shipman recognises that they may lead to longer sequences of questions directed towards blaming him and so he attempts to disrupt the interviewers flow. Atkinson and Drew (1979:221) note that by recognising earlier on that questions may lead to blaming, the suspect can defuse the interviewer's turn of questioning with a pre-sequence and cut off the sequence before it leads to a more damaging accusation.

Tag questions are more coercive than declaratives with tags and aims to prompt respondents to confirm or deny a version of events presented before them. As stated by Tsui (1992:92), the very construction of a tag question suggests that taking a position different to that of the questioner would be unwise. Additionally, Leo and Thomas (The Mirand debate) suggests that tag questions are spoken in falling intonation in order to emphasise that the speaker is confident of the claim being made thus, expecting an agreement from the respondent. An example of this is highlighted in:

37) P: I'd like to put it to you, doctor, that you were the person who administered that lady with the drug, aren't you?

38) S: No.

Here, the declarative tag “aren't you” expresses a definite content through its interpersonal meaning as modal of probability was absent. Thus the interviewer in turn 37 presents the suspect as the Actor who ‘administered' the lethal dose of a drug which implicitly murdered the lady. The certainty of P's accusations in turn 37 followed by the tag invites S to reply with the expected response, that is, confirming the proposition contained in the question. However, in this case S denies the accusation thus, openly contesting the proposition demonstrating legitimate resistance. However, as Shipman does not provide a replacement answer, he does not suggest who else might have committed the murder.

On other occasions, suspects are observed resisting tag questions by producing ‘avoidance resistance' whereby “I don't remember” responses are given in order to avoid providing positive or negative responses. The following extract displays such instances.

110) P: You chose not to remember. It wasn't too long ago in this interview where you were explaining you'd been to see the family, checked the computer record, and was telling them all about this angina. Was it?

111) S: It's a rhetorical question.

112) P: Quite correct though isn't it?

113) S: I still have no recollection of entering that onto the computer.

(Newbury and Johnson 2006:222).

By giving those responses above rather than the expected “yes” or “no” answers, the suspect cannot be later accused of lying. At the same time, Shipman maintains his non-culpable identity by providing reasons for avoiding the question: firstly insisting that the question is not a question and secondly resisting the officer's proposition that he's choosing not to remember, therefore resisting though correction (Ibid).

The last form of confirmation-seeking question is bare declaratives. These are often marked form and are the most coercive type of questions described so far. In turn 39, the pio uses a declarative structure, which presents the suspect as the principal actor involved in the murdering process of the deceased patient.

39) P: The levels were such that this woman actually died from toxicity of morphine, not as you wrongly diagnosed - in plain speaking you murderd her

40) S: No.

This is because this declarative contains no interpersonal modal verb that modifies the interviewer's certainty. Rather, it is an assertion that contains no modal tags, which indicates that the interviewer is making a statement that the suspect is gulity. The definite content of the declarative thus function as an accusation that forces the suspect to employ an opposition strategy (Ibid:223).

In this section, I have discussed how confirmation-seeking questions can be resisted through contestion, avoidance and correction. Additionally, it can be seen that coercion increases with the type of question; declarative with tags being the least coercive and bare declarative being the most coercive. It therefore appears that coercion question are employed when resistance are likely to occur. In the next section, I will look at resistance to information-seeking questions followed by the conclusion of the essay.

This type of question occurs when the suspect is invited to add information to the interview that may be new to the questioner and cannot be confirmed. However, despite suspect's freedom to produce more than yes/no responses, the amount of information given by the respondent remains constrained by the interviewer (Gibbons 2003:101).

The three types of information-seeking questions are: Finite/Subject forms ,WH-questions, and either/or questions. I will only be focusing on how either/or questions functions to elicit information in Shipman's transcript.

Either/or questions can be described as the most controlling type of forms as they restrict the respondent's response by making them choose between one of two declaratives provided in the question. They can also be seen as a fusion between confirmation and information-seeking questions since the interviewer may be unaware of which option offered in the question is correct, they can effectively eliminate from the suspect's reply other versions of events. Turn 88 is an example of either/or question because is extremely reliant upon the suspect's response, additionally, it also employs a tag as a confirmation-seeking strategy. In this example, the suspect overtly avoids answering the either/or question on the grounds that the interviewer is merely telling a story (Ibid:229).

88) P: You see if you examine that record which I'm going to go through with you very shortly now to give you the exact time that things were altered, it begs the question, did you alter it before you left the surgery, which indicates what you've done as premeditated and you were planning to murder this lady, or as soon as you got back did you cover up your tracks and start altering this lady's medical records? Either way it's not a good look for you doctor is it?

89) S: Continue the story.

As we can see in turn 88, the interviewer represents the suspect as the participant actor involved ““did you alter..did you cover up your tracks and start altering” in altering the patients records in order to cover up his tracks. Additionally, the inclusion of the tags functions to signal that the interviewer is aware that the suspect is unable to answer the either/or questions without incriminating himself. Thus the interviewer is pressing the suspect here for a confession. Shipman agains resists providing an answer to the interviewer's question in order to avoid admitting his guilt. Rather,he implies that the officer is telling a story and therefore an answer was not required.

In this essay, I have outlined some of the interactional resources that police interviewers use to maintain and gain control over suspects during interview. Additionally, how some suspects (specifically Shipman) have employed resistant strategies in an interview was explored. Using Heydon's (2005) framework of police tri-partite interview stucture, I have shown that by controlling the turn-taking in the opening and closing sequences, managing topics and resconstructing suspect's version of events, poi are able to dominate the interview. Similarly, using Gibbons' (2003) dual typology of police interview questions (confirmation and information seeking), suspects can resist confirming and giving information whilst at the same appearing cooperative. In addition, I have shown that Shipman resisted transforming as an Actor from doctor to murderer through opposition, correction, avoidance and refusal of culpability in actions (Ibid:230).


Atkinson, J.M. and Drew, P. (1979) Order in Court: The organisation of Verbal Interaction in Judicial Setting. Basingstoke:Macmillan.

Ehrlich, S.(2002) ‘(Re) Contextualizing complainants' accounts of sexual assault', Foresnsic Linguistics: The international Journal of Speech, Language and the Law, 9 (2): 193-212.

Gibbons, J. (2003) Forensic Linguistics: An Introduction to Language in the Justice System. Oxford:Blackwell

Heydon, G. (2005) The Language of Police Interviewing. A Critical Analysis. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Maley, Y. (1994) ‘The Language of the law' in J. Gibbons(ed.) Language in the Law. Essex: Longman,11-50.

Shuy, R,W. (1998) The Language of Confession, Interrogation and Deception. London: Sage

Tsui, A. (1992) ‘A functional description of questions' in M. Coulthard (ed.) Advances in Spoken Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge, 89-110.
British Association for Applied Linguistics. Applied linguistics and communities of practice.

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