Hansard is an edited transcript of debates in Parliament that is published daily and initially covers the preceding day’s business, with weekly and final versions subsequently being published. It also includes accounts of votes, written ministerial statements and written answers to parliamentary questions.
Lorraine Sutherland is the Editor of the Official Report. She heads a team of 95 reporters, editors, technical and support staff who are responsible for producing both the edited verbatim reports and the TV and webcast images from the Chambers and Committees of the House of Commons.
Stephen Farrell is a Hansard House Reporter, working on a rota of reporters who ‘log’ proceedings in the Commons Chamber and produce an accurate and grammatically edited verbatim transcript within strict production deadlines.
Transcript of Open Lecture: The History, Workings and Future Challenges of Hansard
Lorraine Sutherland: Thanks very much Naomi. I'm just standing up here briefly because unusually for these lectures you're getting a double-act today. The reason is that before he became a Hansard reporter, Stephen here worked for the History of Parliament Trust, so he knows a lot more about the history of parliamentary reporting than I do. We’re very fortunate to have him here and to benefit from his particular knowledge and expertise.
So I'll hand over to Stephen now to take us back in time.
Stephen Farrell: Thank you very much Lorraine and welcome to you all. Thank you for coming.
I have a text to read that goes into the history of Hansard in more detail, but before I begin that I thought it would be useful to check whether you all understand what “Hansard” means, because people often get confused between three things:
- Hansard and Hansard,
- Hansard and Gurney and
- Hansard and other Hansards, including the Hansard Society.
I don’t want to lose you all at the beginning, so let me try to explain.
What do I mean by confusion between Hansard and Hansard? The best way to remember it is that there was one family, but two different branches, each with its own printing business and each producing different publications for or about Parliament.
One branch, headed by Luke Hansard, were the official printers to the House of Commons; they published all the official documents, including the Journal, Select Committee reports and so on.
The other branch, headed by Thomas Curson Hansard - who set up a separate printing business from that of his father Luke - published the Parliamentary Debates or what we now call Hansard.
The second confusion is between Hansard and Gurney. The Gurneys were another parliamentary dynasty, this time of shorthand writers, dating from the 18th century and the development of Gurney shorthand. Their role was recognised by the appointment of William Brodie Gurney as official shorthand writer to the Commons in 1813.
The shorthand writers produced transcripts of formal oral evidence presented to Parliament—almost always that of witnesses before Select Committees—but they were not the same as the parliamentary reporters who wrote transcripts of what was said in debates in the Chamber and elsewhere, although some of those reporters of course used shorthand themselves.
Indeed, in passing, I should mention the political reporters, who worked in the Press Gallery providing not transcripts of debates, but parliamentary summaries or sketches. That was a development of the late 19th century, as was the rise of the lobby correspondents, who again were political journalists based at Westminster, but working on general parliamentary news.
The third confusion is between Hansard and other Hansards. There are of course two Hansards just in this Parliament, because the House of Lords has its own separate Hansard, with its own reporting staff. There are also official reports for the devolved Assemblies, and many Commonwealth countries, including Australia and Canada, have similar publications that are known as Hansard.
The Hansard Society is a research institute or think-tank that now has no connection with Hansard as such, but it takes its name from our Official Report, because when the Hansard Society was founded, in 1943, Hansard was seen as a vital means of educating the public about the importance of parliamentary democracy and representative Government.
That brings us back nicely to this lecture, because one of the aims of this lecture series is to increase public awareness of the processes and relevance of the institution of Parliament. Having said all that, let me turn to the text of my talk.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak about what Hansard is and what Hansard reporters do. Our job is normally to listen and to write, because we translate the spoken word—what Members of Parliament say in the House of Commons—into the written word of the Official Report that people can read in print and online.
In fact, we spend so much time listening that we are acutely aware of how difficult it is to speak well, especially when speaking off the cuff—which is why I have written out what I want to say. Of course, in doing so, I have left in all the superfluous words, the verbal hints and the oral cues that help to make a text easy to listen to as a spoken presentation, whereas if you had to read this text, you might find it was just a bit too wordy.
Perhaps the first thing to say—and this is something that a lot of people find difficult to understand—is that Hansard does not record all the words in the exact order that they are spoken in Parliament. Hansard is not a verbatim or an absolutely verbatim, word for word transcript; it is what we call an “edited verbatim” transcript, if that is not too much of a contradiction in terms.
It means that Hansard records nearly everything that is said, but without the ‘um’s and the ‘ah’s, the false starts, the slips of the tongue and the little faults of grammar that can make a fully verbatim transcript so frustrating to read.
We aim to provide a full, accurate and fluent report, and we do so by removing repetition and a good deal of the “wordiness” of everyday speech patterns. We take out a lot of the verbal scaffolding, as it were, to make the transcription read more easily on the page.
Above all, Hansard is the official, legal record of what has been said—not of what has been decided, but what has been said—in Parliament. It is also a vital historical record: as the Liberal politician Lord Samuel said in 1949, “Hansard is history’s ear, already listening.”
In other words, we carefully record all the facts, arguments and examples—and it of course goes without saying that we do so in an entirely impartial and neutral way—but we do not have to put in every single word that is said.
As the editor of the Parliamentary Debates, Thomas Curson Hansard junior, said in evidence to a Commons Select Committee in 1862, “I hold myself bound for the bona fides of the reports, not for their literal accuracy.” I am sure that Lorraine would say that she holds herself bound in exactly the same way.
Hansard reporters do a great deal more than just type up what is said from audio recordings. We have to check facts and dates, confirm the names of individuals and organisations, and verify quotations. We have to reflect the procedures that are being followed and to record the exact decisions made, in line with the official Journal. We have to make sure that we correctly identify the Member speaking—that is not always easy when Members look nearly the same or have nearly the same names—and ensure that they refer to each other in the correct way.
Above all, we have to prepare a clear, faithful transcription that may have been slightly tidied up, but nevertheless retains the nuances of the argument, preserves the flavour of the Member’s style of oratory and, with very few stage directions at our disposal, captures something of the drama of the occasion. And we have to do that for everything that is said not only in the main Chamber, but in Westminster Hall and in all the Commons Committees as well.
In many ways, the role of the parliamentary reporter has hardly changed over time. A hundred years ago, one of my predecessors, Michael MacDonagh, who wrote a good book on the history of The Reporters’ Gallery, commented that the reporter’s “chief task is so to unwind the verbose skein as to make clear the hidden governing principle, the salient points, of the speaker; to present the vague thought with definiteness, [and] to give the language in which it is expressed consecutiveness and coherency.”
Nearly a century earlier, in 1824, an anonymous visitor to the Gallery had some sympathy for the parliamentary reporters, given that, as he said, “their eyes and fingers must ache at the writing of speeches…that their memories must be on the rack recollecting, and their judgments untwisting and piecing together the bones and muscles of this body of eloquence”. In fact, that is still a pretty good description of the demanding physical and mental processes that we have to go through.
Parliamentary reporting has a long history. It is usually said to date from the 17th century, particularly during the civil war, when an outburst of news-books or pamphlets provided digests of parliamentary news. The early 18th century witnessed the beginning of more regular reports in monthly political magazines, the first being Abel Boyer’s Political State of Great Britain.
Various attempts were made by the House of Commons to assert its ancient privileges against the reporting of Parliament, but publishers usually evaded these restrictions, by for instance holding back publication until the recess, or by using thinly disguised formats, such as purporting to reproduce the debates in the Senate of Lilliput.
One prominent early reporter was Dr Samuel Johnson, who may never have actually attended Parliament. It is important to understand that his type of reporting was really a form of literary composition. He sometimes received little or no indication of what had happened, and he certainly used his own words in his reports for the Gentleman’s Magazine in the early 1740s.
There is a celebrated anecdote of how, at a literary party, when the assembled company were praising an example of the elder Pitt’s oratory, Johnson sheepishly admitted: “I wrote that speech in a garret in Exeter Street.” In his defence, Johnson gave up parliamentary reporting when he realised that people were taking his accounts as verbatim reports of proceedings.
A stand-off in 1771 between the House of Commons and the newspaper publishers of parliamentary debates, powerfully backed by the City of London, led Parliament to turn a blind eye to the publication of its debates thereafter. That episode did not mean that Parliament had given up its zealously guarded right to keep its proceedings secret, but it did mean that Parliament recognised the futility of trying to restrict the publication of its debates when there was so much public interest in them.
The de facto lifting of reporting restrictions coincided with, and was perhaps related to, a massive expansion in the number of newspapers and of newspaper readership. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, extensive and sustained reports of proceedings in Parliament started to be published continuously in rival London newspapers, including The Times, which came to have the fullest coverage of parliamentary debates.
An outstanding innovator was James Perry, who increased the Morning Chronicle’s parliamentary output by being the first editor to use a team of reporters, rather than just one. It was also at the turn of the 19th century that what became known as Hansard first emerged.
The men who were parliamentary reporters 200 years ago—and they were all men—were therefore newspaper employees.
One of the differences between then and now was that in the old Palace of Westminster, before the fire in 1834, reporters had to compete for places with the public. By convention, they sat on the back row of the Public Gallery facing the Speaker’s Chair, as the Scot William Jerdan recorded, “not only as the best for hearing but as having no neighbours behind them to help the motion of their pencils with their knees and elbows.” Unlike us, the reporters had no automatic right of admission in the early 19th century. Although in 1803, Speaker Abbot ordered the Serjeant at Arms to allow reporters to use the back row of the Gallery, they still had to fight for their seats on popular occasions.
The main difference, however, is that parliamentary reporters in the past did not have audio recording equipment to work with or even, until the middle of the 20th century, sound amplification to help them hear what Members were saying, so how did they do their job?
One of the pioneers was the Irishman Sir James Caldwell, who published the proceedings of the Irish House of Commons in Dublin in 1766. He attended and wrote his accounts “entirely from memory” after each sitting, rather like “Memory” Woodfall in London.
Caldwell boasted that “the deliberate Recollection which Writing made necessary, brought back the Ideas in a slow but regular Succession, and generally in the very Words which had been used to express them.” It now seems ridiculous to think that reporters relied wholly or even partially on memory, and it is unlikely that any reporters—even the celebrated William Woodfall—had perfect recall, but we live in an age that has almost entirely lost the practice of relying on “oral” memory, so I do not altogether rule out Caldwell’s claim.
At the other extreme from the use of memory was the development of shorthand for reporting purposes. One late 18th-century amateur practitioner was Sir Henry Cavendish MP, who filled dozens of notebooks of shorthand reporting, many of which he later transcribed himself, but only a few have ever been published.
According to the reminiscences of another Scottish reporter John Campbell—later Lord Chancellor Campbell—newspaper reporters relied on memory rather than shorthand. Referring to the early 19th century, Campbell later wrote that “I knew nothing, and did not desire to know anything, of short-hand.”
Instead, Campbell advised that a reporter—they were apparently permitted to take notes from about 1783—“should take down notes in abbreviated long-hand as rapidly as he can... He must then retire to his room, and, looking at these, recollect the speech as it was delivered, and give it with all fidelity, point and spirit, as the speaker would write it out as if preparing it for the press.” He also noted that, rather like today, “Fidelity is the first and indispensable requisite, but this does not demand an exposure of inaccuracies and repetitions.”
From the early 19th century, however, it became usual for reporters to have to master shorthand, as the young Charles Dickens did so that he could work on various newspapers and on his uncle John Barrow’s Mirror of Parliament, a publication that for a time was a rival to Hansard.
Dickens, who was apparently very fast and accurate, was a genuine practitioner of the art of parliamentary reporting and knew all about its difficulties. His novel David Copperfield includes a wonderful account of practicing shorthand.
William Woodfall was much closer to the modern conception of a reporter than the myth suggested by the nickname “Memory” Woodfall. As a young man, Woodfall’s reputation rested less on his memory—that was largely a matter of self-promotion—than on the thoroughness with which he compiled, checked and revised his reports.
He made sure that he received the ministerial brief and sought to corroborate his drafts of accounts of speeches by approaching those involved. Most importantly, he made sure that his accounts squared with and incorporated reports in other newspapers, and he checked facts and quotations in other printed works.
As might be expected, Members also contributed significantly to the process of reproducing the debates, not least by sending in their speeches beforehand or by providing corrections afterwards, as well as by answering queries from the reporters (as they still do). Some chose to publish their speeches separately, and these were often reprinted in the compilations that became a publishing feature of the period, and out of which Hansard eventually emerged.
So where does the name “Hansard” come in?
The founder of the parliamentary dynasty was the famous Luke Hansard, who was not, as I have said, the publisher of parliamentary debates. He was for many years the official printer to the House of Commons, and in practice filled the role of a senior parliamentary administrator, since he was also responsible for editing and archiving all the parliamentary papers.
Luke Hansard is not a part of the history of parliamentary reporting as such, but he epitomised what we now think of as the main Hansard hallmarks of accuracy, speed, expertise, reliability and, when required, confidentiality.
Luke Hansard died in 1828, after which the family connection with the office of printer to the Commons descended through his third son, Luke Graves Hansard, but it was Luke’s estranged eldest son, Thomas Curson Hansard senior, who gave his name to the publication of parliamentary debates.
He was brought up as a printer, but left the family business to set up on his own and, from 1808, he was responsible for printing Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates, a publication that had come rapidly to prominence after the radical journalist William Cobbett started to compile it in 1803.
When Cobbett got into financial difficulties in 1812, Thomas Curson Hansard bought him out; had he not done so, what we now call Hansard would surely have become famous as Cobbett. The 23rd volume dropped the name Cobbett from the title, which was thereafter simply the Parliamentary Debates. Not until 1829 was the title changed to Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, which it remained for most of the 19th century. Hansard also took over Cobbett’s Parliamentary History, which incorporated almost all previous accounts of debates into 36 volumes covering the period up to 1803.
Thomas Curson Hansard and his son and namesake ran Hansard for nearly 80 years—from 1812 to 1889—and their organisation was very different from the one we know today, in that they were editors and, for most of that time, had no reporting staff. Their work was one of collation—taking the fullest reports from various London and local newspapers, as well as the text of speeches supplied by Members and their corrections, and editing them into a uniform coherent report.
The Hansards, father and son, devoted themselves to providing the fullest and most accurate compilation through their painstaking attention to detail, but they did not themselves have seats in the Gallery of the rebuilt Commons or regularly employ reporters until the 1870s.
Hansard remained a private organisation, but from 1855, it was financially supported by the Treasury, which agreed to place a central contract to buy 100 copies of each volume for Government Departments, embassies and so on.
Another big change was that from the start of the 1878 Session, Hansard began to receive a formal Government subsidy to enable it to cover four types of business normally omitted from newspaper reports of debates—proceedings on Private Bills by order, deliberations in the Committee of Supply and in Public Bill Committees, and debates that continued in the Chamber after midnight.
That meant that Hansard for the first time had to employ reporting staff.
Parliamentary reporting had gradually become much more extensive. Whereas in the 18th century, many speeches would have been omitted or drastically reduced in length, by the late 19th century a convention had emerged that the speeches of Ministers and other recognised leading figures were given in the first person and as fully as possible, while almost all other speeches, which were usually in the third person, were summarised at not less than a third of their actual length. Members were able to revise their speeches, and an asterisk against the name of a speaker indicated that their speech had not simply been corrected, but substantially altered.
From the 1870s, a series of Select Committees investigated the accommodation, management and financing of the parliamentary debates. Little was done in practice, although the two central Gallery seats above the Speaker’s Chair were allocated to Hansard and a Committee Room was provided for reporters to work in.
A nadir was reached in the 1890s, when a series of attempts were made to outsource Hansard to various other private concerns, including the short-lived Hansard Publishing Union, with the result that reporting standards fell to an appallingly low level.
To cut a long and sad story short, the situation was redeemed only by the report of the 1907 Commons Select Committee on Parliamentary Debates. It adopted terms of reference for reports, going back to a recommendation in the rather good 1893 report: that the speeches of all Members should be given in the first person and treated in the same way, with transcriptions not being a “phonographic” record—that was the contemporary term, derived from the name of the stenography machines that were then coming into fashion—but a full transcription so that, in the standard wording now incorporated into “Erskine May”, the bible of parliamentary procedure, the report “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 a speech or illustrates the argument”. Those are the terms of reference to which we still work.
The 1907 report also recommended that Members should not be able to revise their speeches, except in relation to rulings from the Chair and the correction of very minor factual errors. It also condemned the arrangements for obtaining reports of debates by contract and proposed that the Commons set up its own reporting staff.
That all led to the establishment of new arrangements so that, from the start of the 1909 Session, neutral and objective Official Reports of both Houses were produced in separate series by staff employed directly by Parliament. That, with one or two changes along the way, is still how Hansard is now organised, so at this point I will ask Lorraine to take over.
Lorraine Sutherland: Thank you, Stephen, for taking us so entertainingly through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the point at which — in 1909 — the publication known as Hansard became the Official Report. Sadly, one of the consequences of that change was that the practitioners of the art faded into the shadows of public service and there are very few historical records on which I could draw to bring us up to date. So I have relied on three things: some staff group photographs that I have hanging on the wall in the Editor’s office, the memory of some of my retired colleagues and my own memory, for I have been here for 32 eventful years.
Incidentally, although the publication was called the Official Report from 1909 onwards, everyone kept referring to it as Hansard, and in 1943 the name Hansard was added to the front cover, where it remains to this day.
I mentioned the photographs in my office. The first one shows the group of 13 fine gentlemen— yes, men only—who comprised the staff of the first Official Report team. Then there is a gap to 1947, when the team had grown to 25 and there are two women in the shot.
One of the women was the Editor’s wife, who had obviously come up to London for the occasion as she is wearing a splendid hat and is carrying a bouquet of flowers. The other was a lady called Jean Winder, who was the first female employee of Hansard, having joined the staff in 1944.
Then there is another long gap to 1972, and this time the photo shows 35 people, including eight women. The number of staff increased steadily as the workload increased, and the number of women increased as well. Nowadays, we have about 100 members of staff, including those from the parliamentary broadcasting and recording units, and the balance between men and women is now roughly 50/50.
In 2005, I became the first woman Editor of Hansard — in the House of Commons at least, but not in Parliament. The House of Lords beat us to that by about 20 years, and they have had three women editors to our one. But I’m glad to say that they have now embraced the concept of diversity, equality and inclusion and their current editor — who is here with us today — is a man.
So what other changes have we seen over the years since 1909? For a long time the method of production stayed pretty much the same — using shorthand to record debates, typewriters to transcribe them and sending heavily edited paper versions to the House’s printers, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, to typeset and print them.
But in the early 1970s the number of committees had increased to such an extent that it became impossible to recruit enough shorthand writers to cover them all, so Hansard was forced to come up with a new sort of reporter — the transcriber. These ladies, for they were almost all ladies in those days, transcribed the tape recordings of committee meetings and the transcripts were subsequently edited by committee sub-editors.
The House continued to be reported using shorthand only, until the advent of radio broadcasting in the late 1970s, at which point it became necessary for the Hansard reporters also to have access to back-up recordings. But the ability to write very fast, accurate shorthand remained one of the main skills, and it was becoming very difficult to recruit people with that skill — newspaper journalists, who had been one of the main areas of recruitment, had stopped the practice of taking full verbatim notes and so their need for speed decreased.
It got to the point when Hansard decided that the only way to get the skilled reporters it needed was to set up its own shorthand school, so that was what it did. In 1977 we took in our first batch of graduates and put them through a two-year shorthand course. We ran several such courses, over 10-15 years, changing from teaching Pitman’s shorthand to machine shorthand, or Stenography, over time.
But that was an expensive and time-consuming way to produce reporters, so the decision was taken — not without a great deal of soul-searching, especially among us shorthand writers — that the most important skill of a Hansard reporter was not so much how they captured the words, but what they did with them afterwards. So we dropped the requirement for shorthand and devised instead a much shorter training course in tape reporting. It enabled us to turn out good-quality reporters within six to nine months instead of the previous two years, and it vastly increased the pool of potential recruits to Hansard.
There are still a few people who use shorthand, mostly the Stenograph machine, but nowadays the vast majority of Hansard reporters work from the audio recording. Of course, when relying on technology there is always the risk that it may fail.
That hasn’t happened too often, although there was an occasion about 10 years ago when the sound system in the Chamber failed and the only shorthand writer around at the time was me, so I had to grab a notebook and pen and go down into the Chamber, sit at the Clerks’ Table in front of the Speaker—that was quite nerve-wracking—and attempt to use my very rusty shorthand to record what was going on. Luckily, it was the last debate of the day on a Friday afternoon, with only one Member and the Minister speaking, so it was quite a sedate affair and I coped OK. But I shudder to think how I would have managed if it had happened in the middle of Prime Minister’s Question Time!
We had another incident not too long ago when the microphone operator for the Chamber was unable to get into his operating booth, and we lost all the sound amplification and recording for the first seven minutes of Question Time. We could have done with the services of old “Memory” Woodfall who Stephen mentioned!
But through a combination of reporters’ memory, a sub-editor taking a shorthand note, a very faint and scratchy recording made on a personal recorder in the Press Gallery, and the help of Members reconstructing what they had asked, we produced a pretty full report of proceedings — full enough that no one complained about it the next day!
What other changes have we seen over the years? One such change was in the size of the printed version. Before 1980, Hansard was published in royal octavo — about the size of an iPad — but because the ageing printing presses at HMSO had to be replaced, they recommended moving to A4, which was in accordance with modern printing technology.
But some Members were unhappy about the prospect of modernisation, and over the course of four debates – yes, four - in the House they fought a gallant rearguard action to retain the smaller size, which of course was perfect for getting into one’s overcoat pocket, as generations of Members had been used to doing, or indeed for getting into a handbag. The Conservative Member for Canterbury at the time came up with what he no doubt thought would be the clinching argument — the new size, he said, would be much more difficult to read in bed!
When it came to the decision, however, those 63 stalwarts were unable to hold back the tide of change, and in January 1981 the new size was introduced.
We produce one of these documents every day. It is called the Daily Part. We are able to include all proceedings up to the early hours —our record is 1.45 am — and still have the final version printed and delivered to the House by 7.30 the next morning.
A further change came in the cover price. The cost of printing Hansard used to be the responsibility of the Treasury, and it was the Prime Minister — as First Lord of the Treasury — who had to decide the cover price.
Shortly after Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister in 1979, she was told that she had to make that decision, and she asked two questions: how much was it selling for and how much profit did it make? She didn’t much like the answers: the first was 80 pence and the second was none. In fact, the Minister who brought her this news had to own up to the fact that, far from making a profit, Hansard required a substantial subsidy to enable it to be sold at 80p.
Mrs Thatcher’s reaction was typically robust: she ordered that the subsidy be eliminated by the end of that Parliament and that Hansard should be sold at an economic price. So the cover price rose to £5 (where it remains today, so it has defied inflation somewhat!). But as the price rose, so the number of people and institutions buying copies fell dramatically, from 4,000 in 1979 to 1,000 10 years later, to just a handful nowadays. But, of course, it is now freely available on the internet, so it isn’t surprising that very few people buy the paper version.
Sitting times have also changed over the years. When I started, it was not unusual for the House to sit until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, almost every sitting day — although, to be fair, it didn’t start until 2.30 in the afternoon, so we had the mornings to sleep in!
In Hansard, we’ve never operated a shift system for reporting the House and the staff have to stay until the very end, so it meant people spending long hours at work, not having a social life at all during the week and not seeing an awful lot of their families while the House was sitting.
Things are better now — we have one guaranteed late night on a Monday, when the House sits till 10.30 or 11 pm, and then slightly earlier finishes on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Thursdays usually finishing at 5.30 pm. But please don’t picture us putting on our coats and getting out of the door the minute the House rises — the Hansard staff are still here finishing up the reports a good hour or hour and a half after the House rises, so those problems of not having a social life or seeing one’s family have not gone away.
Obviously, one of the things we’ve had to think about in Hansard more recently — in common with other departments of the House and in Parliament generally — is how much of our output needs to be printed now that it is so easily accessible on the internet.
Last year we stopped printing the weekly version of Hansard, which was the Daily Parts gathered together but not corrected. The final version, which is called the Bound Volume, does include corrections that we have received to any mistakes we have made, and corrections that we decide to make ourselves after proof-reading the Daily Parts. We used to provide all Members of Parliament with free copies of the Bound Volumes, but stopped doing that earlier this year, and now we print only enough copies for the Libraries and procedural offices within Parliament, and for the deposit libraries around the country.
Next summer, we will stop printing the Government’s answers to questions that have been tabled by Members, and those answers will be available only online. So if we were having this talk this time next year, the copy of Hansard that I am holding up would be much thinner, as a good third of it will have gone.
The shift from print to digital means that we have to be right at the top of our game when it comes to web presentation and searchability, and we will be focusing on improving both of those over the next couple of years. We already publish Hansard reports on the day itself — we call it “rolling Hansard” and on the website it’s called “Today in the Commons” (there is a similar page for the House of Lords as well).
Our target is to have a Member’s speech on line within three hours of their having finished speaking which is a pretty quick turn-round. We do high-profile events, such as Prime Minister’s Question Time, even faster — I think our record there was producing it online within one hour and 20 minutes of its finishing. Rolling Hansard, which was introduced three years ago, has been a real success story for us, and the latest web statistics show that it had nearly 23,000 external hits last month, which is a 15% increase on the same period a year before.
Another area where we intend to up our game is in the relationship between words and pictures. We want to introduce links from the Hansard text to the video of that moment, so that people can see how a Member or Minister has spoken, as well as what they said.
As Stephen said, we’re not allowed to use stage directions or give clues to the reader in Hansard, beyond the judicious use of punctuation and the very occasional use of an exclamation mark, so it is difficult to get across on the page emotions such as anger, elation, frustration or sadness, or to render sarcasm or irony — all of which are quite heavily used by Members of Parliament!
I think it will be really beneficial for the public to be able to move easily from the text to the pictures and to see the context in which something has been said. It will help to increase the transparency and accessibility of Members’ speeches, questions and answers. And it will be of enormous benefit when it comes to searching video.
At the moment, we have thousands upon thousands of hours of proceedings on tape and on webcasts, with very few means of being able to search them meaningfully. Next year we will go to a fully online video system for Parliament, and our intention is to attach the data generated by Hansard to that video so that it can be indexed and searched as easily as the text version is at present. Ideally, we will be able to do all that in real time as well, so that if you are watching the webcast of a Select Committee meeting, for example — as many people increasingly are—you will also be able to see information about the Members asking the questions and the witnesses being questioned.
What else is in our future? I hope you won’t think me too old-fashioned if I say, “More of the same”. Our reporters and editors produce a first-class document whose name is a byword for accuracy, integrity and standards of English and we will never change that. We are rightly proud of our reputation and we don’t want to do anything that would jeopardise it.
Could production methods change again? Possibly, although I have yet to come across any technology that could replace what we do now. I hear a lot of talk about voice or speech recognition being the future. It is true that its accuracy has steadily improved over the years, especially for individual users speaking to their computers or other devices, and we all increasingly experience its use in automated telephone systems.
Indeed, some of our reporters in the Commons and especially the Lords use it instead of typing. But it is quite another task to get it to recognise 650 different voices, some with strong accents, sometimes mumbling a bit, sometimes shouting to make themselves heard above the din, and sometimes all speaking at the same time!
I’ve heard claims that it can attain 85% accuracy in such circumstances. All I would say to that is that if you produce 200,000 words a day, as Hansard quite often does, then that still leaves 30,000 words that are wrong, and the other 170,000 are completely verbatim, unmoderated utterances that will still have to be moulded into sentences and paragraphs that make sense to the reader. So would it save time and money? In my opinion, no.
But we will, of course, keep an eye on the technology just in case it makes an incredible leap forward in accuracy. Then it will be worth considering as an alternative to typing, although it will never remove the need for the talent and judgment of the skilled Hansard reporter and editor.
And if anyone would like an example of where technology can go horribly wrong, I would direct you to the video of Margaret Thatcher’s last appearance at the Dispatch Box which appears on YouTube with captions generated by automated voice recognition. It is quite hilarious, but I find that it detracts from what she was actually saying during what was a really great parliamentary performance. And that is not something that I would ever want Hansard associated with — we are there to enhance, not detract.
Let me finish with a quote from Matthew Parris, the columnist for The Times, who was once a Member of Parliament himself. When he was the sketchwriter for the Times, sitting in the Press Gallery, he was able to observe the Hansard reporters at work and then the next day compare it with what he had heard coming up from the Floor of the House. On one occasion he wrote:
“As we know, in the skilled hands of the parliamentary Hansard notetakers, Monday’s gibberish becomes Tuesday’s classic English. The room in which the Official Report is compiled is the nation’s top operating theatre for cosmetic surgeons in English prose. As a result, many MPs actually believe they talk sense. Today they strut their hour on the Commons stage, talking unintelligible rubbish. Tomorrow they read the report. From the report emerges a speech of passion and clarity, delivered in perfect English. ‘Gosh’, they murmur over breakfast, ‘did I really say that?’ They didn’t. They didn’t say anything like that.”
Now I don’t agree entirely with Mr Parris’s observation that Members speak unintelligible rubbish— many Members are fluent speakers and it is a joy to report them. All that I would say is that their words are precious to us and we are going to carry on reporting them faithfully and accurately so that you, the public, can read exactly what is being said by the people for whom you voted. Hansard is the ultimate “no spin zone” when it comes to reporting on parliamentary events, and long may it remain thus.
Thank you for listening.
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