Power, paisley pyjamas, and language observations on BBC Question Time

by Craig Evans

After watching Question Time on Thursday (2 October – available on BBC iPlayer), I was struck by how pertinent some of the discussion seemed to be to two of the modules I am taking: Critical Discourse Analysis and Gender, (Im)politeness and Power in Language. In particular, a question relating to a scandal involving Tory MP Brooks Newmark raised an interesting response about the abuse of power. I have transcribed this below, together with a comment about women’s language from the labour MP, Stella Creasy.

For those who may have missed this story, it is about a tabloid newspaper sting operation which caught the Minister for Civil Society, Brooks Newmark, sending explicit photos of himself to someone he believed to be a young, female party activist. The MP has since resigned, and what has followed is a controversy about whether or not entrapment was used, and also if the story can really be said to be in the public interest. In defence of the view that it is in the public interest, freelance journalist Susie Boniface (the Fleet Street Fox) made this compelling argument:

“I think there are two issues that would make this public interest. One of those is that one of the messages that Brooks Newmark sent which is that ‘I will send you a picture and you send me one, that way we both have a secret’. Now if that were you or me it doesn’t matter to say that kind of thing. In a government minister who has security clearance, that is an invitation to blackmail and to corruption, and that under ministerial conduct would be a reason to resign regardless of what you think about sexting or affairs or anything else that’s a reason to resign. And the second one is that the really dark and nasty nub of this story is that a man with power and wealth and influence repeatedly – not once or twice, not idly – but repeatedly sought explicit photographs from what he thought was a young woman who had no power or wealth or influence, and if she had been the young junior activist that he thought she was, he would have had the power to influence her career for better or worse. To me, personally, I think that smells a little bit like exploitation, and it’s certainly abuse of power. I would prefer it if people who abuse their power for sexual gratification were not running the country.”

So what are your thoughts? Do these exchanges between the MP and the believed-to-be activist amount to a situation of power abuse? Personally, I think so. The choice to use a word like ‘secret’ is particularly concerning when it is used in the sense of binding two people in a pact that would allow them to have influence over each other. In the context of sharing images for sexual gratification when one of the parties involved is a government minister, the mere existence of such influence seems tantamount to a situation of power abuse.

In addition to its relevance to CDA, the topic on Question Time also raised an interesting question about gender and language. This is because the journalist who pretended to be a female activist was actually a man, a fact that Stella Creasy believes should have been evident in his use of language:

Stella Creasy MP: I read some of the messages – they were very surreal. That is not how women speak, frankly – uhm, that were being sent to the MP so it did read as a very strange story. But above all…

David Dimbleby: What is not how women speak?

Stella Creasy MP: Well if you read some of the messages that the journalist in question was sending to MPs, to male MPs, about being ‘hot, hot, hot’, and this sort of thing, it was very surreal.

Susie Boniface: Does that not make you think that he must have been extra stupid, vain and reckless to have accepted that?

I think Susie Boniface might have a point. Perhaps Brooks Newmark would benefit from taking some of the modules on the English Language and Linguistics course at UWE – after all, he does now have more free time on his hands.

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5 comments

  1. I remember taking the same module in 2010 under the supervision of Jo Angouri. Such an interesting module and so many excellent skills learned!

    From a CDA standpoint, how do you perceive the comments regarding how women don’t speak (and therefore “do” in some other fashion)? Is it merely a suggestion of irregularity in speech, or a deeper, prescriptive case of “as I am a woman, I know how women speak?”

    (I’m sure there’s no right or wrong answer here, I’m just intrigued =] )

    1. I believe Jo has now gone on to pastures new (Warwick, I think) but I did have her briefly in the first year for Meaning, Style and Discourse.

      Thanks for your comment, by the way, and your question. I have seen a few of the tweets, and there doesn’t seem to be anything indicating a style that might be said to be characteristically male or female. I had expected something in the vein of Kira Hall’s account of exaggerated personae based on sexist male fantasies (as per her work on phone sex workers). Perhaps this was apparent in tweets I haven’t read, but from the ones I did see, I got the impression of the language on both sides being quite child-like rather than gender-specific; I mean this in the sense of the playful mischief of each daring the other (i.e. ‘you show me yours and I’ll show you mine).

      As for Stella Creasy’s claim of it not being how women speak, perhaps she’s studied the tweets more closely than I to be able to come to that conclusion. However, it does seem to be a bold claim to make given that gender, particularly in a sexual context, is something that is performed. If the style of language used can be said to be unnatural, then it is unnaturally male and female, and seems to me could have been acted out by either sex.

      All that said, I am at the very start of my studies on CDA and language and gender, so my views on the subject may well change.

      1. You may be at the start, but it’s a great analysis! I’m sure you’ll love the module if you’re proposing replies such as these already (just be prepared to transcribe. Lots!)

        I have just returned to UWE to begin my linguistics Ph.D. I assume as you’re in the final year you’ll be doing a project. If so it’d be great to hear more or meet up to find out about what your focus is. Either way, good luck for the last year of undergrad!

  2. Great discussion! Stella Creasy appears to think that women would not ‘do’ being female by being immodest and ‘bigging themselves up’ by claiming they were ‘hot, hot, hot’ . It may not be as surreal as she thinks, however. Spam emails from (at least supposedly) female touts that have found their way into my mailbox contain such terms…

  3. Interesting point, Kate – Stella Creasy’s claim about what constitutes women’s language, as implied by the comment ‘that is not how women speak’, does rely on some sweeping assumptions about gender and language.

    And thanks for your comments about my analysis, Luke. I am indeed doing a project this year. My subject is on whether care leavers are encouraged to self define as victims. I’m still in the process of working out my research methodology, but it would be great to meet up and tell you about it. Also, I would be very interested to hear about your PhD.

    I won’t put my email on here just in case it encourages the kind of spam that Kate’s been receiving, so I’ll send you a direct message via twitter.

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