“Ah, a sub-editor? You write the headlines then, do you?” said the MP in the lift.
Everyone in Hansard is used to having to explain what we do, sometimes multiple times a day. And in a way, the Committee sub-editors do write the headlines, as we make sure that the titles of debates—the headings—reflect what is being discussed.
But CSEs, as we’re known, have many other roles in Hansard. We are part of the small team that provides reports of debates in the House of Commons outside the main Chamber: in Westminster Hall, legislative Committees and Select Committees.
So what do you do?
In some ways, we are traditional sub-editors—we edit the work done by parliamentary reporters like Joe and Committee reporters like Helen—but there’s a lot more to it than that. In any week dozens of Committees will sit, so reporting them as we report the Chamber and Westminster Hall wouldn’t work (if we did that, it’d take weeks).
Instead, a CSE will be present in the Committee meetings to write a sketch account of what’s happened, which is called a log (it’s a little like a script, with the name of the person who’s speaking, their first words and points that people might want to check, as well as anything technical or procedural that happens). Reporters then use our log and the recording to report what’s been said before sending it to us electronically. We put their work together in longer sections to edit. Our remit is very similar to that of the reporters; we’re checking for clarity, smoothing any rough edges and making sure the document conforms to our style, while keeping the flavour of the speech. We’re also responsible for sending the finished document to be printed and published online.
CSEs are there at the beginning and the end of proceedings, which gives us an excellent overview of how everything fits together. If reporters are sheep dogs, shepherding MPs’ words into a flowing text, we’re the shepherd, or maybe the sheep pen—we bring it all together.
Jacks of all trades
When I was writing this post, I asked my friends what they wanted to know about my job. Most of them weren’t sure what I do, or thought that I reported the House. I still do, occasionally—CSEs have all been reporters in the past, and we help the reporters when we’re needed.
In any one week, I might be responsible for publishing the edited Westminster Hall report within four hours of each speech being made, proofreading Select Committee transcripts, or logging and editing the debates about a Bill going through line-by-line scrutiny in Committee or Committees considering delegated legislation. The latter were in the public eye during Brexit, as they were used to bring European law on to the British statute book. In some weeks, we had as many as 24 a week. They can last up to 90 minutes each, although if they’re uncontroversial they’re more likely to last for half an hour.
Now, of course, with the pandemic, things have changed. CSEs continue to go into Parliament to log legislative Committees and the House (with social distancing and limits on numbers), but Select Committees are sitting in a hybrid form, with some MPs and witnesses participating virtually, and we log these from home via Zoom, using a shared document. At the moment, I’m working from home three or four days a week.
Plate spinners extraordinaire
When we’re in the Committee room or on the Zoom call, we might look calm and collected, but the adrenaline is flowing—we’re not just writing our log, we’re actively listening and looking, trying to understand the arguments and thinking what information might be needed by reporters with a vast range of experience and specialist areas. There might also be the dreaded “procedure”—the rules by which the House considers and changes laws. Without it, it wouldn’t be clear what decisions had been made, or when things had started or ended.
We need to keep up with who’s saying what about what (Zoom has added to the challenges here, as we’re now dependent on the software picking up the right speaker). We also need to know what’s been decided—and parliamentary proceedings can move fast. In Bill Committees and Delegated Legislation Committees, we’re doing all this while also controlling the microphones that hang from the ceiling. We do this using buttons on a panel that mirrors the lay-out of the room, with one button per MP. After all, you can’t have Hansard without a good recording!
Being a CSE is the best job in Hansard (yeah, I’m biased)—no two days are alike. Look out for us manning the mics in those obscure debates on tax regulations.