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Questions about questions: Murdoch’s performance at the Leveson Inquiry

Shows such as CSI have warped our understanding of what questioning is likely to achieve. Facundo Arrizablaga/EPA

Commentators on Rupert Murdoch’s appearance at the Leveson Inquiry have pointed out some alleged inconsistencies between the evidence and his testimony, leading many commentators to reject Murdoch’s claims that he wielded no political power.

But, despite the contradictions seemingly revealed by Robert Jay QC’s line of questioning, Murdoch did not “crack”. This might have disappointed many, but it comes as no surprise to anyone who has spent any time questioning suspects.

Whether Murdoch was lying or not, the whole affair highlights a number of strange assumptions people often make about forms of questioning that occur as a part of the legal process.

US psychologist Dr Paul Ekman, one of the key researchers in lie detection, would readily blame television shows such as The Mentalist, Lie to Me and Monk for our distorted view of this part of the legal process.

These shows capitalise on the image of an interrogator endowed with unique skills overcoming deceptive criminals to uncover a hidden truth.

But there’s a hidden truth to these shows (and indeed most TV crime drama interrogation) that is deeply rooted in something akin to what’s become known as the CSI effect.

Questioning questioning

Despite the occasional chink in his armour, Murdoch’s performance at the Leveson inquiry (which resumes hearings on May 7) went off without great drama – revelations, and the beat-up of competitors notwithstanding.

So I think our addiction to legal drama has something to answer for.

As is the case with most Hollywood-induced effects, reality does not bear out the logic of television. As Dr Elisabeth Carter, from the University of Essex, illustrated in her 2010 study, questioning-induced confessions are exceptionally rare in police interviews.

The research illustrated how British Police officers tend to use statements of fact, or the minimisation of potential consequences, instead of questions in order to successfully elicit confessions – debunking the illusion that officers “grill” suspects until a confession is forthcoming.

Dr Carter highlighted the way in which questions, especially closed questions, had little use in directly leading to confessions. Which calls into question the idea that questioning is a direct route to the truth.

The truth machine

The machinery of the Leveson inquiry, Murdoch’s performance and the counsel’s questions are part of a public spectacle of truth-finding.

Dr Micheal E. Lynch calls this the Truth Machine – a machine that employs the mechanics of questioning and the evidence used in real legal settings to establish matters of fact.

Alongside forensic evidence, this Truth Machine is put into place as legal professionals employ adversarial modes of questioning.

The basic premise is that truth is established through the act of questioning, not with it. To unpack that idea, there are number of things in conjunction that work to “assemble” the truth in the course of questioning.

The truth is treated as a straightforwardly-findable object (in the same way we might expect to find our car keys). The the act of questioning, and presenting evidence effectively, then makes this truth (or its absence) evident in the course of trying to find it.

This may seem implicitly critical of the legal system, but that’s not my point. My intention is not to judge whether professionals in the legal system are right or wrong to use questions, or to “assemble” the truth – not least because legal professionals are using the same fundamental social resources as you and I.

To state the obvious, the Truth Machine is not the sole province of lawyers and the police: they just have a very specialised version with particular (and necessary) requirements. I’d wager most parents have interrogated their toddler once or twice.

But, as with the CSI effect, the prevalence in crime drama (and lie-detection crime drama in particular) has led to a widespread, but unstated, assumption that with the right questions the truth will appear and liars will inevitably slip up.

Deception: a chicken-and-egg problem

The thing about lying is that lies happen when you ask questions, and also that lies usually work. Which is why there are no guarantees for interrogators in inquiries and legal trials.

Having the best information available about an investigation is still currently the best way to get to the truth. That would involve forensics, a wide range of witnesses and whatever other sources you can muster provide the best way of getting the job done.

For better or worse, there are simply no armour-piercing questions.

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