In Issue 2/2020


As official reporters, we may find that our focus on reporting the words that are spoken in a parliamentary setting coincides most of the time with what is significant in the speech event. I want to focus on the challenging situation when what is said does not coincide exactly with what is significant.  How should official reports deal with these non-verbal but significant events? There are many aspects to the significant non-verbal, including the venue in which the speech event occurs, interventions or other interruptions from the audience, props that the speaker may use and the possibly infinite amount of information about the speech event.  I want to focus on one aspect of the significant non-verbal, the display of body language in official reports.

Verbal and non-verbal: some examples

Consider, for instance, this passage from the UK House of Commons official report, Hansard:

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Please can we calm the debate? This is an important debate, and we do not need shouting across the Chamber in that fashion. [Interruption.] Order! Do you understand? Stop it. Let us take the heat out of the debate now, and stop the calling.

(Evans 2012.)

When read in Hansard, nothing particularly stands out; the meaning appears to be clear and, other than the stage direction “Interruption”, there is no sense that non-verbal but significant events are occurring.  However, viewing the broadcast of the episode gives a different impression, though we should bear in mind, of course, that broadcasts are still an editorialised version of what happened at the speech event, as they can only show us what happens from the camera’s point of view and what is not shown may be as significant as what is shown.

The Deputy Speaker’s words, when listened to or watched rather than read, take on a richer, stronger and more precise emotional content; his resolve and anger are palpable, particularly in his repetition of the phrase, “Do you understand?”, which has been edited out of the official report. What is significant and what is spoken clearly overlap but are not identical. 

A historical example makes the same point about a mismatch between significance and words spoken. When Winston Churchill made his first speech as Prime Minister in May 1940, it was Churchill’s tears, rather than his words, that most struck another MP, Harold Nicolson, who watched the speech.  In his diary entry for 13 May 1940, Nicolson wrote:

Winston makes a very short statement, but to the point … Then Lloyd George gets up and makes a moving speech telling Winston how fond he is of him.  Winston cries slightly and mops his eyes.

(Nicholson 1960, 86.)

However, the speech as reported in Hansard makes no reference to Churchill’s tears. Bout should it?

Complexity of body language and speech events

Obviously, body language is complex, and a huge amount of information about it could be gathered. In any speech event, this could include details of the speaker’s physical appearance, facial expressions including occuleisics (eye movements), kinesics (movements of torso, arms, head), use of space, and paralinguistic data (such as tone of voice, accent, speed of speech, disturbances and defects in speech). The same information could be captured of everyone in the audience, along with haptics (how close people are to one another), olfactics (odours) and the physical setting of the speech event. Each of these areas could be studied in endless detail.  My belief is that there is an infinite amount of information that could be gathered about speech events, and that it is not possible to collect all of it; that would amount to transcribing infinity (see Cook 1990). 

Official reports’ assumptions

What non-verbal but significant information should be captured in official reports? There is not one simple answer to this, but if official reports are clear about their working assumptions, they should be clear about how to report the non-verbal but significant.  The key questions that take us to those assumptions are:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What is the official report’s relation to debate?
  • What are the official report’s terms of reference?
  • What are the power relations around the official report?

In brief, the answers to these questions for the UK official report are that the audience used to be the king before the 18th century and Members from then onwards, until the extension of the franchise, at which point our audience changed to the public. Hansard now enables transparency and accountability of those who wield political power.  Official reports can have various relations to a debate, ranging on a spectrum from observer, rather like an 18th century scientist—detached and watching dispassionately—to interpreter of the event for an audience who may not be present or able to view the debate subsequently.  Terms of reference obviously vary widely; some parliaments require official reports to capture every word, other official reports are given licence to edit, and these ways vary widely. By power relations, I mean those who have the authority to edit what is published in the official report. In the UK House of Commons, for instance, every word in Hansard attributed to the Speaker is sent to him for approval before publication.  John Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, made a diary entry in 1940 about being able to edit Hansard in spite of what was said in the Chamber, and that he “altered the text in many places to improve the style and the grammar” (Colville 2004). Who has the power to intervene on an official report and change it? Reporters need to be aware of the answer to this question.

When an official report’s assumptions are clarified, it should be clear how it will deal with examples of the significant but non-verbal, and whether it will seek to describe them or not.  Several approaches are possible to the significant non-verbal, and all are adopted by official reports of different parliaments.  The main approaches are:

  1. To report the words and ignore all the non-verbal
  2. To make small changes to the words so they refer to what the reporter deems significant
  3. To use parenthetical descriptions to refer to the non-verbal
  4. To allude to the non-verbal by a textual convention, such as “Interruption” in the UK Hansard

I will illustrate two of these approaches in the following section, and a future paper will discuss this matter in more detail.

Different approaches, different assumptions

Which approach is adopted depends on the assumptions that are used; there is not a right or wrong about approach, but there is consistency with one’s working assumptions. I hope you enjoy this short clip of a speech by Monsieur Jean Lasalle to the Assemblée National in France in 2018 (focusing on the section from 1:20):

How should that be reported? Several approaches are possible, and the UK Hansard would likely report the words and ignore the fact that some of the words were sung.  However, the approach of the Compte Rendu Intégral is in the left-hand column below, with my own translation alongside:

Les réseaux sociaux ont ici peut-être contribué, ce qui n’était pas le cas à une autre époque où elles s’étaient lancées en entonnant : « Ami, entends-tu… (M. Jean Lassalle fredonne  l’air du Chant des partisans.) »  Social networks may have contributed to this, which was not the case at another time when they had launched themselves by intoning: “Ami, entends-tu …” (Mr Jean Lassalle hums the tune of the Chant des Partisans.) ”  
Tandis qu’à Paris on chantait : « Et Paris… » (M. Jean Lassalle fredonne l’air de Paris en colère. – Sourires.)  While in Paris they sang: “Et Paris …” (Mr Jean Lassalle hums the tune of Paris en Colère. – Smiles.)  
M. le président. Ici ce n’est pas le music-hall, cher collègue !  Mr. President. This is not a music hall, dear colleague!  
M. Jean Lassalle. Monsieur le président, chacun prononce son intervention comme il croit devoir le faire. Celle-là est l’une des plus importantes de ma vie !Mr Jean Lassalle. Mr. President, everyone speaks as he thinks he should. This one is one of the most important of my life!  

The key to the difference in approach is over the official reports’ different views of their relations to the debate; the Compte Rendu Intégral view their job as being interpreters for an audience who have not necessarily witnessed the speech event and need guidance to understand what is going on, where the UK official report would see itself as an impartial observer of the speech event, like the detached scientist.  The French approach corresponds to 2) and 3) in the list above, where the UK approach is a combination of 1) and 4). Different terms of reference allow this divergence in approach, as do different power relations: the compte rendu protects its right to interpret what it sees, and pushes back against Members who may not like the interpretation, where the UK official report, for historical reasons, has a different relation with Members, who used to be the principal audience for its work.  To use a different metaphor, different magnifications are being used to filter the infinite amount of information in a speech event: in the UK, it focuses on the words, in France, some non-verbal information is included in the compte rendu to make their report comprehensible to those whom they see as their audience.


Body language is part of the infinite amount of information that could be captured about any speech event. There is no right or wrong about how much of this information to include, but an official report’s approach to each event should be guided by the assumptions it adopts in its work; who its audience is, what its relation to the debate is, what power relations operate around its work and what its terms of reference permit.  Then, how to report otherwise challenging examples of the non-verbal but significant should be clear.

John Vice has been Editor of Debates of House of Lords Hansard since 2012. He first joined the UK Parliament 30 years ago and worked for Commons Hansard before moving to Lords Hansard in 2001.


Colville, John (2004). The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Cook, Guy (1990). “Transcribing Infinity: Problems of Context Presentation”, Journal of Pragmatics 14, pp. 1-24.

Churchill, Winston (1940). In Hansard, House of Commons, 13 May 1940, cols. 1501-02. Online at

Davies, Norman (1996). Europe, Oxford University Press.

Evans, Nigel (2012). In Hansard, House of Commons, 5 July 2012, col. 1114. Online at

Lasalle, M. Jean (2018). Compte Rendu Intégral, Assemblée Nationale, 5 December 2018:  at

Nicolson, Harold (1960). Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters: 1939-45, ed. N. Nicolson, Collins.

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