Most of the time, Hansard reporters just have to worry about getting the words right—making sure that what appears on the page accurately reflects what was said by a Member of Parliament. But sometimes that can be made more challenging by unexpected or unpredictable events, some spoken and some not. So how do we deal with these events?
Anyone who has watched a few minutes of the House of Commons on television will know how frequently Members shout taunts and jibes across the Chamber. We call these interventions sedentaries because they are usually spoken by Members who are not currently making a speech and are therefore sitting down (in a sedentary position). But heckling public speakers is by no means a modern phenomenon.
In CE 48, the Emperor Claudius proposed to the Roman Senate that moneyed, landed citizens of Gaul be allowed to join its ranks. The proposal was carried, but not before he was heckled and told to get on with his speech. We know this because a transcript, complete with senatorial crossfire, was discovered in 1528 on a bronze tablet in Lyon, or Lugdunum, Claudius's birthplace and a city whose wealthiest citizens probably wanted engraved proof of their new privileges. This is probably the earliest known case of “chuntering from a sedentary position”.
Regular readers will know how Hansard deals with sedentary interventions, but what do we do when non-verbal reality collides with a speech? Or, as you might ask if you’ve checked to see how we reported some recent disruptions – the semi-naked Extinction Rebellion protesters, the water leak, or the disembodied announcement during PMQs – why is it sometimes hard to tell from Hansard what’s happened? The answer is that we only report what Members say, and if they don’t say what’s going on, we can’t really tell you. Adding expository detail can mean editorialising and thereby undermining our impartiality, so hard evidence of the outside world exists in Hansard only at sub-homeopathic levels. What’s more, a transcript of every potential distraction or stray remark in the Chamber would be harder to report and almost impossible to read.
To get round the inevitable intrusion of reality, we have a small repertoire of stage directions. [Interruption] is our go-to modesty screen and has done work for a musical tie, an insistent housefly, a volley of horse manure, a CS gas attack from the public gallery, and — well, let your imagination supply the rest. If Hansard were reporting the history of the cosmos, in the beginning would be the word [Interruption]. Less common, [Laughter] isn’t an instruction to the reader or a reliable seal of comedic quality. We use it when someone laughed and the response wouldn’t make sense without mentioning it.
There are unseen worlds packed into those two words, and that’s not all that can go astray between speech and text. Sarcasm, gesture, the telling hesitation, the scripted pause – all can struggle to survive in Hansard without the umbilical support of sound and preferably vision.
Five interesting exceptions
Happily, though, life is unpredictable and every so often Members will do something that forces us to be more flexible. Sometimes it’s something small. Here, for instance, is the fans-only tweak that we deployed when Margaret Thatcher used the distance between her two forefingers to illustrate differences in income inequality.
Once they start to talk about the gap, they would rather that the gap were that—[indicating]—down here, not this—[indicating]—but that—[indicating].—[Official Report, 22 November 1990; Vol. 181, c. 443.]
Sometimes it’ll be something more cryptic, such as this message in Morse code sent by Alex Chalk.
. . . . . -. - - . . - - . - . - - / - . . . . . . - . -. . . . - . . . -- . - - / -- - - /- - . - . - . . . . . - - . – —[Official Report, 11 July 2019; Vol. 663, c. 562.]
Sometimes it’s what Members don’t do. Here’s the once-in-200-years stage direction we improvised in 1931 to reflect Speaker Edward FitzRoy’s decision to call in back-up after John McGovern defied his ruling to leave the Chamber.
The hon. Member was then removed by force. —[Official Report, 2 July 1931; Vol. 254 c.1471.]
Sometimes, though, the brawling follows the run of debate and the Speaker plays the advantage. Here’s Robert Bower running his mouth from a sedentary position and discovering, courtesy of Manny Shinwell, that words have consequences.
Commander Bower: Go back to Poland.
At this juncture the hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) crossed the Floor of the House and struck the hon. and gallant Member for Cleveland (Commander Bower) a blow on the face.
And sometimes – and, admittedly, verbally – the whole House spontaneously erupts into “God Save the King” to mark the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
After Question No. 99 had been answered, the Prime Minister (Mr. Lloyd-George) entered the Chamber, and was greeted with loud cheers, nearly all the hon. Members rising and joining in the greeting. When the cheering had concluded, hon. Members sang “God Save the King”.
And on it goes.
Embracing change in the age of technology
This is necessarily a small sample of the odd things we’ve reported – no one’s read everything on our website, so we’d love to hear about anything juicy you find there. Televised coverage has probably put an end to outright fisticuffs, but there’ll always be a theatrical element to parliamentary debate, and some of the extra-verbal stuff is bound to nose its way into Hansard.
Being able to watch a large back catalogue of parliamentary proceedings on parliamentlive.tv also means that the public can check the whole Official Report—both the video footage and the written record. So while Hansard is unlikely to publish anything as awesome or mysterious as the Roman Senate—[Interruption] is fine, but a mid-sentence page break in jagged bronze is the real thing—our reporting practice will no doubt continue to evolve to embrace the exciting challenges of an increasingly—[HTTP 404.]