Jay, Leveson, our modern day version of a Socratic dialogue

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been enjoying the Leveson inquiry despite its depressing revelations. For many, what is of interest is seeing the powerful being brought to account.  For others, it is a chance to see the issues raised by phone hacking addressed.  For me, while these issues are important, they are secondary to what is enjoyable.  What I have enjoyed is seeing and reading good questions posed by Robert Jay QC and others.

In my studies, I read a fair bit of Plato. He wrote many dialogues with Socrates as the central character asking questions to attempt to find the truth of some matter.  He would ask questions like “What is law?”, “What is justice?”  However, these are only transcripts; we could not see the body language, the tone of voice, or the facial expressions used by the interlocutors.  The written version of the questions always lacked the human element.  What the Leveson Inquiry provides is the human element. We can see the questions and the responses.

What I like about Robert Jay’s approach is that it shows good questioning techniques.   At the same time, he understands (as does Lord Justice Leveson) that the inquiry is not a philosophical quest for truth.  Instead, it is an inquiry to answer a series of questions.  In this, Jay has his brief set for him for each module and ultimately for each witness.

Despite the obvious constraints, we can enjoy the skill being displayed by Jay and the other people asking questions.  We can see people defending themselves and promoting themselves. We see powerful people held to account. We also get to see a mind at work.  What most people do not realize that this is likely to be the closest we come to an actual Socratic dialogue.

I do not wish to over praise Jay, as he is definitely not Socrates.  The inquiry is not a dialogue.  However, we can see some of the methods and behaviours that Socrates may have elicited.  We can see the powerful chafing under the questions.  We can also see witnesses trying to second-guess the course of the inquiry.  In all stages, though we are treated to a public display of forensic questioning.

What is particularly pleasing is the great contrast between Inquiry and the work of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.  We saw poor forensic skills being displayed.  The questions were rarely thought through. There was rarely an attempt to structure a pattern of questions to get further information.  As others have pointed out, the committee lacked the ability to ask a good question.

Few people have the natural ability to ask good questions. We assume we can ask good questions or have good questioning techniques. After all, we ask questions every day and we get answers to those questions. For powerful people, it is even more unlikely that they will reflect on the need to ask good questions because they get answers.

When we compare the approach of the Culture Media and Sport committee and the Leveson Inquiry asking questions of the same witnesses we can see the difference.  Jay is trained at asking questions and it shows.  Look at how he worked through his questions to get Rupert Murdoch to reveal the “scratch my back and I will scratch yours” approach.  By contrast, the Committee wanted to get to that point, but could not reach it.

The challenge for the select committee members is that they rarely, if ever, have an interest in developing their questioning skills.  What they need to do is develop an approach based on a variety of techniques.  If you are interesting in developing your skill at asking questions, I recommend the following sites.  They offer good examples of how to improve your questioning techniques.

I hope the final summary and recommendations from the inquiry are as good as the questions.  If they are, we may see a document that can reshape the political landscape.


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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1 Response to Jay, Leveson, our modern day version of a Socratic dialogue

  1. Pingback: Democracy and justice in the UK are we training to ask the right questions? | Politics, Statesmanship, Philosophy

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