Reporting Parliament: Hansard, Throwback Thursday

Today in our ‘Reporting Parliament’ series for Parliament Week, we have a guestblog from the team at Hansard. Here they have recorded the ‘day in the life’ of a Hansard reporter, now and thirty years ago…

2017: Thursday, 9 am

I’m on the bus to work, flicking between cat memes and the Hansard website on my iPhone to read last night’s work. I scan today’s online Order Paper to see what lies ahead. The main business is programmed, so at least I know what time I’ll finish tonight.

1987: Thursday, 9 am

Wednesday’s business finished at 1 o’clock this morning —  Labour and the Conservatives have really fallen out over the plans for the nationalised industries.

9.30 am

I arrive in the Hansard reporters room. Unlike most offices in London, it’s wood-panelled and lined with books. Oh, and it’s just a couple of strides from the Commons Chamber. It looks like an old film set, only marginally less atmospheric; PCs will never have the romance of typewriters.

Someone across the dormitory is snoring, the sun is beaming through thin curtains and Big Ben is chiming loudly overhead. I’m not working again till lunchtime, but I suppose I’ll get up.

I turn on my computer, check my emails and load up the programs I’ll need to produce my work for the day. But there are some things that just won’t do in digital.[1] And the list is one of them. Reporters work in a rota of 16 that we call “the List”. Each member of the team is responsible for reporting five minutes of debate at a time. We call each chunk of debate we report “a Turn”.  As soon as I arrive each day, I make sure I have a printed copy of the List, which tells me the time at which I need to be in the Chamber for my Turn.

I read the papers over a bacon sandwich in the Press caff. There’s an amusing sketch about ‘the Hansard writers’ scratching their heads in the Gallery as the new shadow Energy Secretary engages in robust debate about something they’re all starting to call ‘privatisation’. We’ve been coping with his speaking style for years now; must’ve been be a slow news day.

10 am to 10.10 am

© UK Parliament/(Mark Duffy)

I’m sat in the Press Gallery. Hansard reporters sit in the two seats directly above the Speaker’s Chair, and we call it “the Box”. For five minutes, I act as an extra pair of eyes and ears for the person before me in the List. Then it’s my Turn and the person who follows me in the List helps me out.

As I’ll be working till about 11 tonight, I try to ring my family. No reply. I spend a pleasant couple of hours instead in an almost deserted National Portrait gallery. I’ll ring home again tonight between Turns, if I get a chance.

I take longhand notes of what’s going on—who’s speaking, intervening or heckling. I scribble figures, acronyms and the names of organisations I’ll need to check when I leave the Chamber. If it’s a quiet debate, I google names on my phone to save time later. But, as I said, there are some things that just won’t do in digital.

For example, an MP names a constituent and head of a local health board (do they still exist?) I need to spell that name correctly. So when I leave the Chamber, I scrawl a note: “Please confirm your constituent’s name, Susan/Susanne/Suzanne/Suzan?” Names are never spelt as you’d imagine. I send the note down to the Chamber in a dumbwaiter that we call “the Chute”. Yes, really, a dumbwaiter. It’s the quickest way to contact MPs when they’re in a debate.

10.10 am

I return to my desk to type up my Turn. The sound in the Chamber is recorded and stored on an audio system called Sliq, which integrates with our specially adapted version of Word. To listen to my Turn as I type, I just put on my headphones and use a foot pedal to control playback.

When I input information such as debate headings and the names of MPs who have spoken, I instantly generate tags containing metadata. This informs how content appears on Hansard’s website and enables you to search, for example, for contributions by your MP.

I use Google to research anything in my turn that seems unclear, to find quotations and to confirm the spelling of companies’ names. Another reporter has checked the Chute and picked up a reply to the note I’d sent to the MP. It simply reads, “Soosan.” Glad I checked.

10.50 am

When I’ve finished typing, editing and checking, I click “send” and my Turn becomes “RFS”.  Ready for Subbing. My computer helpfully asks me whether I’m sure about this decision. Probably not, but we have deadlines.

Our report of what is said in the Chamber is published online in its final form within three hours. And each chunk of debate isn’t finished until it’s been through an extra layer of checking by a sub-editor. To meet these strict deadlines reporters aim to complete a Turn in 45 minutes.

After convincing my computer that I actually would like to send my turn, I pop down to the café to top up my caffeine levels. Then I head back to the Chamber for my next Turn. And then my next Turn.

1 pm

It’s lunchtime, but I have a Turn at 1.10 pm. I’ll grab something afterwards.

I join a group of Hansard reporters in the canteen. We exchange predictions about when the House might adjourn. Nobody knows. I decide I better eat while I have the chance.

4.45 pm

My second Turn comprises some very bad-tempered exchanges at the beginning of an Opposition day. As I scribble a quick note to send down the Chute — ‘Susan’ is a common enough name, but you never know — a lobby correspondent from The Times goes into his paper’s phone booth to ring the office.

My typist is waiting for me. I perch on the upright chair and unravel my Stenograph note. Disaster strikes. The typewriter ribbon snaps, and in the panic a rather full ashtray is knocked on to the floor. Eventually, I resume my dictation, but there goes any chance of a dinner break later.

5.30 pm, House adjourned

A doorkeeper in a tailcoat and a white bow tie shouts “Ho-o-o-m-me”, the bells ring, and with the day’s business over, I finish my Last Turn.

6.45 pm

Off to the theatre. Or the cinema. Or an exhibition. I mean, where else would you go on a Thursday night?

10.30 pm, House adjourned

A doorkeeper in a tailcoat and a white bow tie shouts “Ho-o-o-m-me”, the bells ring, and with the day’s business over, I finish my Last Turn.

11.15 pm

I say goodnight to the sub-editors still working as I hand in my last Turn. As I head back to the dorm I see the courier from Her Majesty’s Stationery Office drive through the carriage gates to pick up the day’s copy for overnight printing.

I never did get a reply to that note I sent. Good job I found the name in the Councils, Committees & Boards book. Soosan? Who would have thought.

[1] “In digital?”—I hear you shriek—“In digital what? I thought you were supposed to be a Hansard reporter! Digital is an adjective, not a noun. I shall read no further.” Well, things change. It’s 2017. Just sayin’.

Charlie Browne (Senior Reporter)/Vivien Wilson (Managing Editor – Hansard)

You can read all of our ‘Reporting Parliament’ series for this year’s Parliament Week here.

Charlie Browne also blogs about Hansard over on Parliament’s website.

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