The public perception of the House of Lords is as a genteel, formal place where Members behave well and respect the House’s traditions. For the most part, this is a fairly accurate characterisation. As in all Parliaments, though, our Members – noble Lords, as they are known collectively – do not always act in a noble way. They tell bad jokes. They interrupt each other by shouting out comments. They erupt into collective fits of laughter or outrage. Each of these scenarios poses its own challenges to the parliamentary reporters compiling Hansard, the official report of the House of Lords.
Members of the House of Lords rarely attempt to amuse. Perhaps they know that it is only a truly special punchline that comes across as funny both to someone watching or participating in the debate and to someone reading it afterwards. Written down, parliamentary jokes – shorn of essential signposts such as intonation, timing or external context – often come across as stilted or nonsensical. Their cause is not helped by Hansard’s tendency to use an exclamation mark only in the uncommon event of a genuine exclamation – such as when a Minister swore loudly after he was accosted by a “bigger than normal” fly in 2019 – and not to convey an attempt at comedy. This necessary approach saves reporters having to pass judgment on what is or is not a joke.
Committed to paper, something jovial can come across as grumpy. In October 2021 we reported the Lord Speaker calling “Lord McNulty” to speak. Had Lord McNally ignored the mangling of his name, we would have not only disregarded the error but omitted the Lord Speaker’s words altogether – unlike the Finnish Parliament (see Voutilainen 2021), we do not report routine interventions by the chairperson. But since Lord McNally chose to respond, Hansard records both the Lord Speaker’s mistake and the response: “It is McNally—the noble Lord and I have known each other for only 30 years.” To anyone watching or listening, Lord McNally’s rebuke was clearly a good-natured dig at his friend. However, given the somewhat wooden sheen that parliamentary reporting can put on informal language – “It is” rather than “It’s”, the location of “only” after “for” instead of after “have”, and the absence of an exclamation mark – readers could be excused for thinking this was a cold, angry response.
A sedentary intervention can present various challenges. Unlike some other official reports, which seek to report all interventions, Hansard ignores such “out of order” utterances – that is, those contrary to the rules and procedures of the House – unless their inclusion is necessary for the reader to make sense of any subsequent comments that are in order, which usually means the present speaker acknowledging or responding to the interruption. In such cases, to omit the intervention would be to leave out something of substance and to cause confusion to the reader. For example, if we had left out Lord Foulkes of Cumnock – probably the House’s most frequent supplier of sedentary interventions – interrupting a Minister with the words “Just answer her question” in October 2021, Hansard readers might have wondered what prompted the Minister to suddenly say “Let me finish” in the middle of her short answer to a question about benefits.
When we include a heckle, the first task is to identify who was responsible. Spotting the culprit can be tougher in our current Covid way of working, when the number of Hansard reporters in the Chamber is sometimes zero or one, unlike pre-pandemic when it was always two. If we are in the Chamber but did not see who spoke, we can ask the doorkeepers if they know who it was or, if we have a suspicion who it might have been, to deliver a note to the Member: “Did you intervene when the Minister was speaking about decarbonisation?”. If we still cannot identify the barracker after watching back the TV coverage, our unsatisfying fallback option is to credit the intervention to “A noble Lord”.
The next challenge is: what did they say? Dozens of microphones hang from the ceiling in the House of Lords Chamber. When the nearest microphone is not turned on quickly enough to catch the first words of a new speaker’s contribution, which is especially common in the case of sedentary interventions, the words can be missed. If no reporters in the Chamber could make out the words in real time, we would first listen back to the audio and watch the TV footage. If we were still unsure, the final option would be to send the Member a doorkeeper-delivered note or, if he or she had already left the Chamber, an email. This might be an open question – “What did you say to the Minister when she was speaking about decarbonisation?” – or, if we had an inkling but were not certain, a more specific query: “Did you say ‘She’s lying’ when the Minister was speaking about decarbonisation?”.
As with heckles, Hansard includes an indication that there was a general commotion in the Chamber only when it is necessary to assist the reader’s understanding of something reported afterwards. The most common way in which we do this is through the magnificent construction “Noble Lords: Oh!”. Besides brightening up proceedings with a pantomime element, this is vague enough to cover a wide variety of scenarios – a useful attribute, given that we do not normally employ stage directions such as [Laughter]. Murmurs of discontent at something unconvincing a Minister has said? Noble Lords: Oh! Guffaws at a rare successful joke? Noble Lords: Oh! Gasps after a Member trips and falls in the Chamber? Noble Lords: Oh!
While “Oh!” is the most common utterance that Hansard records noble Lords as saying – and, incidentally, constitutes by far our most frequent use of an exclamation mark – it is not the only thing that Members can say collectively. When there is not an amorphous hubbub but a specific barracking by several Members, usually in response to something just said by the current speaker, we are within our rights to include something along the lines of “Noble Lords: No” or, when a Member is asking a lengthy question, “Noble Lords: Too long” – but, again, only if it is subsequently acknowledged in the debate.
Our job as parliamentary reporters is to turn oral communication into written: to transfer spoken words to paper without losing any of their meaning or style. Different official reports’ approaches to pursuing this ambition as uniformly and impartially as possible vary considerably, but all are broadly tailored to formal speech. Therefore, the events covered in this article – all moments of informality of one kind or another – often involve difficult decisions. Do we always succeed in finding the appropriate balance between following our guidelines and preserving the spirit of what goes on in Parliament? Probably not.
Considering these scenarios has certainly given me a newfound respect for the work of my counterparts in more boisterous Chambers – especially the one at the other end of the corridor from the House of Lords – where reporters must have to spend a great deal more time and effort grappling with them than I ever do.
Jack Mitchell is a Hansard reporter and sub-editing reporter in the House of Lords, UK.
House of Lords Hansard, 23.10.19, col. 635 Freedom of Establishment and Free Movement of Services (EU Exit) Regulations 2019
House of Lords Hansard, 12.10.21, col. 1733 Cost of Living
House of Lords Hansard, 26.10.21, col. 635 Ofcom: Appointment of Chair
Voutilainen, Eero 2021: Reporting the Chairperson’s Speech in the Official Parliamentary Report: Useless Noise or Essential Information? – Tiro 2/2021