IPRS logo
Intersteno Parliamentary and
other professional Reporters’ Section
International Federation for Information and Communication Processing INTERSTENO

From black art to black gown – a postgraduate diploma in parliamentary reporting

Lorraine Sutherland, with Jonathan Hoare (UK)

Ms. Schwarz-van Poppel gives the floor to Ms. Lorraine Sutherland, head of the parliamentary reporting office of the House of Commons.

Ms. Lorraine Sutherland started some thirty years ago as a parliamentary reporter. The method of training in those days was simple: two weeks to learn the trade and the rules from an experienced reporter. This was called “Sitting with Nellie” and was in fact a form of black art in that nothing was written down. There were no written rules, only word of mouth. An editor simply had to feel if something was wrong. Some of those unwritten rules were very strange. Some subeditors for instance never allowed use of the word “particular” or “particularly” and preferred “especially” instead. Also a sentence could not start with the word “this”.

At the time, Peter Walker, the deputy editor, was very keen on shorthand. But finding qualified shorthand writers who could write fast enough proved to be difficult. So the reporting office started its own stenography school and used a stenography teacher. Walker also believed that Computer Aided Transcription could halve the number of necessary stenographers. That didn’t turned out as expected, as not all of the trained stenographers were good CAT-reporters. In 1997, therefore the decision was made to drop shorthand and to concentrate the training of recruits not on capturing the words but on English language skills. This meant training in audio only reporting.

The current postgraduate diploma in parliamentary reporting is validated by an external learning organization. But why seek validation of an already very good and well established training program? About seven years ago, the administration in the House of Commons underwent a big restructuring exercise. One of the results was that the Hansard department merged into a bigger department including the Clerks and security. This urged the Hansard to ensure retaining their unique identity and the quality of their product. One of the subeditors came up with the idea of externally validating the reporter training course. This scheme was already very successful with an intake of seven people every eighteen months, and the quality of the reporters was really good. The aim of validating was to codify the course and put it to potential further use, for example short tailored courses for the public, codifying the editorial training, and language skills training for colleagues from other departments.

The subeditor who came up with the idea was asked to look for the best possible fit in terms of a partner. He visited various universities around London and came up with City University in 2008. This university was not chosen because it has a good school of journalism. The official report is definitely not a newspaper report. City University also has a really good focus on business and professions. In the end, Hansard became affiliated with the law school of City University.

Getting the validation right meant a lot of preparatory work. It was necessary to produce an over twenty pages long submission document that had to be revised many times in conjunction with City University. Also academic assessment methods had to be devised. This meant revising the assessment methods already in use. The descriptors of grades that were to be attributed to people’s marks had to be described. Also the various levels of attainment had to be distinguished. It took some eighteen months to agree on the course content, which was ready in April 2010.

The hope was that the new validated training program could be applied to the May 2010 training group. Unfortunately however, the Dean of Validation at City fell ill. It also proved to be a mistake to let all the weight rest on the shoulders of only one subeditor. Therefore a committee was formed, which meant rewriting the submission document once again. Sometimes the committee was surprised by the university, for example in asking formal terms of reference or asking for external examiners. So it had to jump through different hoops before getting permission and getting to the eureka moment.

Things fell into place on 27th April 2012 in a meeting with the validation committee of City University at the House of Commons. During this meeting former students of the class of 2010 spoke about their learning experiences. Their testimony convinced the committee that Hansard was serious, knew what it was doing and would be a good partner. After some more discussion about the assessment criteria they agreed, after which the course started with the class of 2012.

Ms. Lorraine Sutherland then introduces sub-editor Mr. Jonathan Hoare, who elaborates on the content of the newly devised course. He sees three main aspects of the process of finding new Hansard reporters. The recruitment consists of 1. a detailed person specification for advertisement in newspapers and a written test for candidates, 2. a transcription test in Parliament, and 3. a formal interview. What is the person specification? Hansard needs people with a wide general knowledge and the ability to understand complex argument and to report it clearly and grammatically. Their intellectual capital must consist of language skills, and knowledge of current affairs, national and international politics, in order to interpret what they are transcribing. Hansard also requires of candidates the ability to edit their reports in Parliament. Another aspect of the specification is the ability to check references, skills in general research, quotation and other details. These need to be absolute accurate in the official reports. Another important aspect is that candidates have team working skills. Hansard is in need of team players because work is being done in a deadline driven environment. Candidates also must have good keyboard skills and familiarity with Windows-based software.

Once candidates have applied and put their CV in, their knowledge of current affairs and their language skills are tested in a written test that they send in with their application. For example, candidates have to spot the mistakes and errors in a sentence like: “I understand that they are due to meet President Joseph Zuma, the South American leader, later this weak.” (I understand that they are due to meet President Jacob Zuma, the South African leader, later this week.) After weeding the people out who don’t have the required basic skills, the ones left over are invited into Parliament for a transcription test. From the 800 applicants for four jobs, 60 remained after the written test. These candidates were required to transcribe a five-minute speech in 75 minutes. The test, the second main aspect, was marked by several sub-editors. On the basis of this test, the decision was made who was invited for a formal interview, the third main aspect. Twelve candidates each got a 30-minute interview with a panel consisting of the Hansard training manager, one of the course trainers and a representative of human resources in Parliament. As a result, four candidates were appointed.

In the past, the training course lasted three months, after which the trainees started on the job. The new, validated course consists of two modules. Module 1 consists of a three month training course in a classroom. In module 2 the trainees are embedded in the teams, working live under close supervision of trainers and line managers. Module 1 means working full-time over a period of twelve weeks, testing transcription skills under time limits, including frequent visits to live events in the House of Commons Chamber or Committees. Not just listening to recordings of old debates of Parliament on data tapes but experiencing what it would be like to do the job for real. Methods used in module 1 are group instruction using recordings of debates; practice in transcribing; one-to-one coaching; shadowing, i.e. shadowing reporters who are actually reporting for real, and observing live proceedings; independent study, as required by City University; knowledge reviews; copy analysis, i.e. analysing within the group the issues of editing a particular text; Hansard expert presentations; learning logs; formal one-to-one meetings monthly.

What is Hansard looking for as the key learning outcomes in module 1? The trainees should be able to follow complex arguments on specific debates in which technical language is used. They need to be able to understand parliamentary processes, i.e. the procedure of the House of Commons and its Committees. They must appreciate how developments in contemporary politics inform reporting choices. Making choices of editing verbatim reports means understanding politics and the implications of editing choices. They need to know the process through which a bill went in the House of Commons and the House of Lords before becoming law. They need insight into contemporary politics and current affairs and how these influence and are influenced by official reporting processes. They also must understand the need for accuracy and impartiality in different parliamentary contexts. The recruited people will become committee reporters and will work on different types of committees, legislative or select committees. In the latter committees, the style of reporting is much more verbatim. They therefore must recognize and critically apply different reporting styles in different contexts. They need team working skills, advanced written and oral communication skills and IT skills. They need to be adept at using the Hansard Reporting System, a package of software.

The assessment of module 1 consists of two main parts. The four written exercises are mainly transcription tests. The marks received on those make 2/3rds of their mark at the end of module 1. There is also a two-part multiple choice test on parliamentary procedure, 1/6th in weighting, and a presentation based on individual research on a relevant topic, also 1/6th in weighting. The assessment criteria for the transcription are as follows. Trainees get seven minutes to produce a five-minute transcription. The content has to be accurate, full and reflecting character and flavor of the speech. The content has to be grammatically correct and in accordance with the house style. The member information has to be correct. Also the copy needs to be fluent, with repetition and redundancy omitted where appropriate. The copy needs appropriate use of grammar, house style and punctuation. Hansard uses an extensive style guide. The last criterion is the intelligent use of relevant documents.

After three months in class, the trainees move into module 2 and into teams. They work alongside the permanent staff. All their work is live, edited for real and published as part of the official report. This is closely monitored and evaluated by the trainers, who will become their line managers once they work on the job. The trainees fly solo but get regular feedback on their work so they can see what areas need improvement. At the end of module 2, the course tutors and the director assess the progress of trainees, and work towards giving a final diploma award.

The assessment of module 2 consists of three parts. Trainees maintain a portfolio of their work, their reporting for real, and commentaries on the issues considered in the course of doing their work. This gives them the ability to demonstrate the issues they have considered and the knowledge they have used in order to produce their work. This interesting process allows them to explain why they make certain choices in producing transcriptions. These portfolio commentaries are assessed by the tutors as part of the line management process. This gives them 50% of the marks that they are awarded. The other 50% comes from the four written exercises, as in module 1.

The final result is that all four trainees of the class of 2012 have graduated. One of the students got a distinction and the other three got merits, which means they are all very good students.

Ms. Lorraine Sutherland concludes the presentation with the announcement that the following course starts in January 2014. Hopes are that this time it will be possible to work in conjunction with colleagues from the House of Lords. Also the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association might come up with a scholarship so that a trainee from an overseas parliament can do the indepth training of module 1.

A member of the audience asks how many trainers are working with the trainees. Ms. Lorraine Sutherland answers that the training is done by two main trainers, supplemented by subeditors to a total of twelve. In module 2 trainees are closely supervised in the teams in which they are embedded.

Mr. Herbert Houdijk explains that the Dutch parliamentary reporting office is used to training trainees itself without rules for the trainers. Are there any rules set for trainers in the parliamentary reporting office in the UK? Are they validated to be a trainer? Ms. Lorraine Sutherland answers that all trainers followed a three day “train the trainer” course. During the collaboration with City University, Hansard has learned a lot about teaching courses.

Ms. Rian Schwarz-van Poppel thanks Ms. Lorraine Sutherland and Mr. Jonathan Hoare for their presentation. She congratulates them on this new and interesting development in recruiting. Being a head of a parliamentary reporting office herself, Ms. Rian Schwarz-van Poppel will surely consider introducing something similar in the Netherlands.

The presentation slides for this presentation are available on our Downloads page.

RSS feed RSS news feed
IPRS on issuu issuu
IPRS on LinkedIn LinkedIn
IPRS Facebook group Join our Facebook group
Intersteno 2017 Berlin
Intersteno