The Web of Evil (webofevil) wrote,
The Web of Evil

No alteration without representation

There’s a particularly rotten and splintered canard drifting around Westminster that needs to be mulched once and for all. I see and hear it repeated all the time by people who know not an atom of what they’re talking about. I’m sure that I’m guilty of the same thing with regard to other topics, in which case I deserve to be forcibly corrected in the same way that I’m doing now. Once, then, and for the record:

Hansard does not make changes at the request of anyone else.
It’s that simple. Corrections, yes, where there’s an error in the text, but if a speaker made a factual error and everyone in the room heard it, then it lives on until they choose to correct their error in public.

“But,” you might be saying at this point, “I hear all the time that they do—the government doesn’t like something because it’s embarrassing so it tells them to take it out.” You will indeed have heard that, mostly from lazy journalists passing on what they were told in the bar.

It certainly sounds plausible from the outside—part and parcel of the general Westminster stitch-up culture, just another cynical trick for us to tut wearily at. Most frequently, though, the accusation stems from culpable ignorance of this elementary rule:

If a speaker does not respond to a heckle during their speech, the heckle does not go into the book.
Again, simple stuff—simple enough, you might think, that it would not be beyond the wit of journalists, those stout guardians of truth, accuracy and free speech, to go and look it up.

It is true that Commons Hansard sometimes feels the need to spare its readers’ blushes and blanks out a rude word, a practice I deplore, but there’s no suggestion that the word wasn’t said—instead, it chooses to sprinkle the offending phrase with dainty asterisks[1] or drape it over entirely with a matronly ellipsis[2]. This may reflect Hansard’s own neuroses but it doesn’t amount to government intervention or suppression of information.

The other source of misunderstanding—and this, to be fair, is a misunderstanding to which some MPs are as prone as lazy journalists—is the part where MPs can check their speeches afterwards. They have at least a couple of weeks to alert Hansard to any changes they would like made. If their requests are reasonable—if they have been misrepresented, if there’s been a misprint or if, say, subeditors’ written comments have accidentally ended up being printed in the book[3]—they will be acted on. If they are not, it will be explained to the member concerned why not. MPs do not have the right to change the copy to what they would have liked to have said. Anyone who confidently asserts otherwise immediately reveals themselves to be untrustworthy, and you should treat any other claims they make as thoroughly radioactive.

You can see how fuzzy half- and non-truths perpetuate themselves in the murk. There's a classic example from John Rentoul here: ignorant journalist posits conspiracy theory, blogger reads conspiracy theory and gets indignant about it, commenter suggests reasonable explanation, blogger dismisses it, journalist reproduces blogger’s indignation and dismissal to reinforce conspiracy theory, loop, repeat, fade.

The most recent claim of a partisan Hansard intervention comes from Paul Waugh of the Standard. Presumably new to the parliamentary reporting game, he has noticed that Dennis Skinner’s frequent heckles about George Osborne’s alleged cocaine use don’t make it into the book and is keen to share. Skinner is indeed a broken record on this topic—he’s now officially as tedious as the Tories who always used to greet John Prescott in the chamber with cries of “Drinks here, steward!” for having once worked as a ship’s steward—but he has been smart enough not to make these insinuations during an actual speech, which would then be recorded in the Official Report in the normal way[4].

The obvious corollary of “no response, the heckle didn’t happen” is “if there’s a response, the heckle goes in”. This is open to abuse by the quick-witted, and Tony Blair used to exploit it to the full during Prime Minister’s Questions. In the general pandemonium of PMQs, with a couple of hundred people all shouting at once, he would apparently respond to someone in the crowd, “The honourable gentleman may say that [insert straw man here], but I tell him that actually [insert lit match]”. At first Hansard, in despair, would bombard MPs in the general area of Blair’s gaze with notes asking them if they had been the heckler and what exactly they had said. It quickly became apparent, though, that among the many exciting things that were being shouted at the Prime Minister, the point that he was choosing to knock down was often not one of them. But when he played the heckle card, Hansard would be forced to write “[Interruption.]” and it would look in the book as if he had genuinely responded. David Cameron learnt the fake response trick and used it to great effect when he pretended that Ed Balls had sneered “So what?” at claims that the army was under-resourced[6].

Hansard’s hawkishness on unacknowledged heckles is not new. One of the most famous lines ever uttered in the chamber isn’t even in the Official Report. Help me here, Wikipedia:

On 2 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain spoke in a Commons debate and said (in effect) that he was not declaring war on Germany immediately for having invaded Poland. This greatly angered Amery and was felt by many present to be out of touch with the temper of the British people. As Labour Party leader Clement Attlee was absent, Arthur Greenwood stood up in his place and announced that he was speaking for Labour. Amery called out to him across the floor, “Speak for England!”—which carried the undeniable implication that Chamberlain was not.
Greenwood didn’t respond, at least not verbally (we can only speculate), so it’s not in the book, yet I haven’t found any articles from 1939 claiming OMG the government LEANT ON HANSARD. Were Westminster journalists then better informed about parliament, or were journalists generally just less conspiracy-minded?

[1] Greg Mulholland: “He’s an a*******!” [Hansard] [The Web of Evil]  Back

[2] Mr Reg Race: When two women who had been accused of daubing the shop with paint were acquitted by the magistrates court it was revealed in the national newspapers that Conegate had been operating a list of sexual contacts in the shop, the heading of which was “Phone them and … them”. Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. [Hansard]  Back

[3] Of course, if this gets found and read into the record the next day, then it all has to stay in. Mr. Swayne: On a point of order, Sir David, I wonder whether you could throw any light on the extraordinary exchange that took place in this Committee at 5.39 pm on 30 January 2001, when someone called Golf Whisky 1 said “I think all this procedure is right—log’s a bit confused and so am I”, to which Tango Mike Bravo 2 replied, “Unable to find a note on this”. The Chairman: I need notice of points of order, and that is a matter for Hansard. [Hansard] [Original error]  Back

[4] In the same way, Hansard never recorded Tory MP Nicholas Soames’s bizarre attempts to put off female MPs on the opposite benches by miming enormous breasts at them while they were speaking, nor any of their retaliatory shouts to him of “Click!”[5].

[5] Due to the notorious claim of an ex- mistress of his that sex with him was like having a wardrobe fall on top of you with the key still in it.  Back

[6] I have written somewhat intemperately about this before so I promise not to bang on about it, but the Hansard reporters, who sit directly above the MPs, definitely heard the interjection “So weak”, although because it was an interruption during someone else’s speech it wasn’t entirely clear who had said it. And I’ll take the word of people who are paid to sit and pay attention in the chamber over that of MPs out to score a point or the lazy journalists they drink with.  Back
Tags: in the house, lazy journalists
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