21 Feb 2017

Recording the goings on (and on and on)

From The House, 1:03 pm on 21 February 2017

Hansard reporters write down everything that is said in Parliament’s debating chamber. Megan Whelan visits the office. 

Claire Gilray stands in front of bound copies of Hansard.

Claire Gilray stands in front of bound copies of Hansard. Photo: The Wireless / Megan Whelan

If you’ve ever sat in a class or a meeting and complained about having to take notes, spare a thought for Parliament’s Hansard reporters. Because they’re the ones that write down everything that politicians say in the House. And it has to be accurate, because it’s the official record of what happens in Parliament.

“We’ve had a couple of instances where members have tried to challenge what we’ve transcribed,” says Claire Gilray, a team leader in the Hansard office.”Because we have the recording, and the TV, I think they know that they can’t really get away with that sort of stuff anymore.”

It hasn’t always been that way. In fact, the lobbies on either side of the debating chamber are lined with bound copies of Hansard and statutes, so that Members could immediately check them during debates - now, they just take in their laptops.

New Zealand’s Hansard is based on – like most things in the New Zealand Parliament – the UK’s. In Britain the speeches in both Houses of Parliament were printed and published by Thomas Curson Hansard, under the title Hansard's Parliamentary Debates. Now, most Commonwealth countries call the record of their parliamentary debates Hansard.

"Gentlemen, if any question is raised as to my political record, let me say that I have on this table the extracts of my speeches from Hansard. No member has filled so many pages of Hansard as I."

"Gentlemen, if any question is raised as to my political record, let me say that I have on this table the extracts of my speeches from Hansard. No member has filled so many pages of Hansard as I." Photo: (Observer, 25 August 1894). Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

In New Zealand, before 1867, Hansard was scraped together from (often unreliable) newspaper reports. Then an editor and reporters were appointed to report the proceedings of Parliament. Claire Gilray points to the photos lining the hallway outside the Hansard office at Parliament.

In those early days, Hansard was done by men. In the 1960’s a couple of women were employed. (They look like incredibly stern stuff.) Then, the office became dominated by women – note taking and typing being “women’s work,” after all. Now, the office is a mixture of genders. (They’re also notified if someone is going to make a speech in Te Reo, so an interpreter is available.)

Each reporter will spend between five and ten minutes in the chamber at a time, depending on what’s going on. Question Time is only five minutes, because it’s the most raucous, and “because we need to get that churned out as quickly as possible, because that’s obviously, for most people, the most interesting part of the day.”

WATCH: Megan Whelan gets a tour of the debating chamber from the Speaker, David Carter. 

Reporters aren’t actually transcribing the speeches as they sit in the house – despite my visions of notepads full of shorthand. Parliament’s digital recording system picks everything up, so reporters are there to hear interjections. “It’s also easier to transcribe when you’ve been in there and watched it all going on,” Claire says.

Not all interjections are transcribed – they only make it into the official record if the member speaking responds. “Someone can be yelling out for the whole five or ten minutes we’re in the chamber,” Claire says. “But if the person who has the call from the Speaker, which is kind of the rule of when you’re allowed to talk in the Chamber, if they aren’t responding to the interjections, then we don’t include it in the copy.”

After their turn in the Chamber – reporters sit right in the middle, in the thick of it (which is unusual, in most other countries they sit up the back) – they then head back downstairs, transcribe the speech, edit it, fact check it, and then it goes on the web as a draft transcript. They are rarely corrected (aside from the occasional minor typo), but a copy also goes to the member who also has the right to check and correct the record. (Claire says most members don’t send them back.)

In New Zealand, Hansard reports go all the way back to the first volume in 1867. Stretching back more than 150 years, staff photographs line the corridors of the Hansard office, capturing the people who have continued this tradition of free and independent reporting of Parliament.

In New Zealand, Hansard reports go all the way back to the first volume in 1867. Stretching back more than 150 years, staff photographs line the corridors of the Hansard office, capturing the people who have continued this tradition of free and independent reporting of Parliament. Photo: Parliamentary Service collection

The speech then goes through several more layers of checking, fact checking, and making sure it fits style guides and other references, before the final version is updated.

Moves have been made in the past couple of years to make Hansard more accessible – and more easily searchable. Claire says Parliament has made massive advancements in the past couple of years on that front, though there’s still work to do.

“Previously a speech wouldn’t go up on to the website until it had been edited, which would be several days after it had been given, whereas now we have the draft transcript,” she says. “So although that means there’s a higher chance of having slight misspellings, it means it’s accessible normally within two and a half hours of the speech being given in the chamber…I think we’re the only Hansard which puts something up within that time, which is pretty cool.”

Megan is a former senior producer for The Wireless. She has worked in Radio New Zealand News, Sport, and Radio New Zealand International, has an extensive library of animated gifs, and spends too much time on the internet.

This content was originally published on The Wireless with funding from Parliament.