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Being a Hansard reporter: 10 things you thought you knew

This post was first published on the Parliamentary Digital Service blog

If you write a blog post about why your organisation is starting to blog you have to follow it up quickly. If you also admitted that most people haven’t got a clue what your organisation does, you really need to start answering a bunch of questions. And when I say ‘you’, I don't mean you. I mean me. No pressure then.

There’s a lot to write about Hansard. We have more than 90 staff in various editorial, broadcasting and admin roles. We'll blog about all those positions over the next year. I’m kicking things off by explaining my job as a House reporter because the job is fundamental to the purpose of Hansard. We listen to MPs speaking in the Chamber. Then we put those words and ideas on a page for anyone to read.

Simple, right? Wrong. Any reporter will tell you that the job is a pain to describe to strangers. Even our friends and families never quite get their heads around it. Sometimes it’s because they already have an idea in their head but don’t bother asking. Other times they ask but can’t imagine what we describe.

After lots of difficult conversations, I realised that it’s easier to tell people what I don’t do and dispel their assumptions than to describe my job from scratch.

So I’ve created a list of 10 assumptions that all House reporters have faced. I’m going to provide answers in cold hard print. Well, online, so maybe that’s warm print or soft print? I don’t know. The point is you can come back to it if you’re ever up at 3am thinking about Hansard.

1 - We’re not like court transcribers

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve said, “I’m a reporter, not a transcriber. Yes, there is a difference!” And then sulked in the corner like a misunderstood and angsty teenager.

A transcript is a completely verbatim record. That means that everything said is written down, even if it doesn’t make much sense. Hansard is not completely verbatim. It’s not a transcript. It’s a report.

As humans we automatically filter out mistakes when listening to speech. We barely register slips of the tongue and the brain. What we’re left with is something we understand.

That’s what Hansard reporters do for readers. We filter the spoken word so you can read it and understand but we aim to keep flavour and character too.

2 - I’ve never seen you on TV. So you don’t work in the chamber

Hansard reporters in the gallery

Yes, we do. We’re out of shot though. You know the Speaker’s Chair? There’s a clock above it. We sit in the two seats above that clock. If you’ve ever visited, you might have sat in the Public Gallery. We’re opposite that, in the Press Gallery. We listen to a chunk of debate, go back to our office (we call it the reporters' room) and type it up.

3 - We can’t just watch on telly

An MP making a speech in the chamber

That wouldn’t work too well. Debate in the House of Commons is unpredictable, fast and volatile. MPs sit wherever they like as long as they’re on the correct side of the Chamber. Seeing and hearing it with our own eyes and ears means we get some context. That’s very important to us getting it right.

Cameras don’t always pick up all the detail we need. They can only show one angle at a time according to Parliamentary broadcasting guidelines.

We need to see who’s speaking, intervening, heckling and who might intervene or heckle in a few seconds’ time. That’s because we have to attribute the right words to the right person. Failing to do so is the most serious error a Hansard reporter can make.

We know all 650 MPs by face, name and constituency. It’s a weird but necessary skill. Imagine having to learn about 650 people you don’t even know personally.

We have the best seats in the House but they’re still not ideal for spotting everyone. So you might see us hanging far over the Gallery to get a better view. Well, it’s more leaning than hanging. Actually, to be honest, it’s more peering than leaning. But it’s dynamic and we have to react quickly.

4 - We aren’t in the Chamber for very long

Hansard reporters in the chamber

People are often surprised that we don’t spend long in the Chamber. We work in a rota of 16 reporters. We call it “the list”. It’s a bit like a relay race where we pass the baton every five minutes. And the relay doesn’t end until the MPs have finished debating in the Chamber at the end of the day. Or night.

Each member of the team is responsible for reporting five minutes of debate at a time. That allows us to produce the report to our tight publication deadlines. We call each chunk of debate we report a “turn”. That’s important. We use the word “turn” a lot. All it really means is a leg of the relay.

Our report of what is said in the Chamber is published online within three hours. Each chunk of debate isn’t finished, however, when the reporter has typed it up. It has to go through an extra layer of checking by a sub-editor. To meet these strict deadlines reporters aim to complete five minutes of debate in 45 minutes.

Sometimes we report ten minutes at once. We aim to complete ten minutes of debate in 90 minutes or less. That means it takes longer for the baton to be passed all the way through the list. So everyone gets time to eat a tasty sandwich. Or cake.

5 - Does it really take that long to type it up?

I guess 45 minutes sounds like a long time. You could run five miles in that time, watch an episode and a half of EastEnders or bake a lasagna. It’s not long though. Filtering the spoken word into the written word means you can’t bash out every single thing you hear. You have to think about making it readable. That takes a bit of time.

Hansard has high standards. Accuracy is even more important than speed. We type and edit but we also check everything: every name mentioned, every company or tiny island, MPs’ pets (dogs especially like to get a mention in Hansard).

This research can be anything from googling to using reference books and sending MPs notes in a dumbwaiter that we call “the Chute”. 45 minutes race by while you’re checking everything and making every sentence clear to the reader. You know the saying: time flies when you’re doing turns.

6 - We don’t do shorthand or stenography

Well, there are still a few people in Hansard who can do both those things. They just don’t any more. It takes too much time and investment to train people to learn. We’d also be learning something we don’t really need as the sound is available immediately on an audio system called Sliq and we’re all speedy typists. So there’s no need to record everything in shorthand in the Chamber.

7 - Changing words is not distorting history

It’s frustrating when people mistakenly think we change words to change history.

Firstly, we wouldn’t want to. Hansard staff take great pride in our impartiality. We’re humans so of course we have political views but we all leave them at the door when we come to work. Secondly, it wouldn’t even be possible. You can check the Official Report against the audio recording. It’s completely transparent. We report the whole debate and don’t tell you which bits to read. You’re intelligent. You choose.

So we don’t change things but like any publication, we do edit. More than 100 years ago, a Select Committee decided that a full report of proceedings should be one:

which, though not strictly verbatim, is substantially the verbatim report, with repetitions and redundancies omitted and with obvious mistakes corrected, but which on the other hand leaves out nothing that adds to the meaning of the speech or illustrates the argument

We still use this definition today and it deserves a blog post of its own at some point. Put simply, we preserve the meaning of an MP’s speech, using as many of their words as possible.

We might move some words around in a sentence to help the reader understand the meaning. We might remove some repeated words but the MP should be able to recognise their words and their meaning. They get a chance to read their speech before it's published so, if they think we’re representing them incorrectly, we can discuss it with them in person. Language is complicated so it’s important to talk about interpretation.

8 - Neither is leaving things out

MPs heckle. A lot. These comments are known in Parliament as “sedentaries” because they’re shouted by MPs in sedentary positions (sitting down). But not all those comments make it into Hansard.

Just like our editing processes there’s no conspiracy here. We don’t choose the loudest or the funniest ones. In fact, we don’t choose at all. We have a rule. Heckles that are responded to by the MP making a speech make it in. If they’re not responded to they don’t. Simple.

Our job would be almost impossible without that rule and Hansard would be impossible to read.

9 - Just because we wear headphones doesn’t mean our office is quiet

Charlie at her screen after doing her turn

Sure, we concentrate really hard but teamwork is essential. If someone is struggling to understand a word, colleagues listen and make suggestions. All manner of topics are covered in the Chamber so the reporters room is full of people trying to make sense of the speech they’re reporting. If you pass by you’ll probably hear us shouting things like, “Did anyone mention pink socks?” or “Which MP quoted Harry Potter?”

Whichever lucky reporter has a turn that falls during a vote (meaning they have nothing to report) always takes orders for coffee. And cake.

10 - Pub at 8pm. See you there

A forgetful friend sends me this message most Mondays. The answer is always, “No.” As a House reporter my working day is governed by what goes on in the Chamber. The hours when MPs sit vary depending on the day of the week. We’re there from just before the business starts until about an hour after it finishes.

Mondays are the latest nights, with business usually starting at 2.30pm and finishing at 10.30pm. I’ve been there earlier and later. It’s not always predictable. Fridays are great because the debate wraps up at 3pm.

The best bit is that work really is over when I leave the building. There’s nothing I can do from home. A weekend is a weekend. I don’t do the classic London Sunday afternoon “catching up on some emails.” For me that makes up for the unusual hours. Who wants to work nine to five anyway? As Dolly Parton said, “It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.” And she’s rarely wrong.

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