William Cobbett, Journalist who fought for the right to report on Parliament.
Hansard is the edited records of all parliamentary debates, votes, written ministerial statements and answers from Parliament in order that they might be easily accessed by any member of the public.
Member’s words are recorded by Hansard reporters and are edited to remove repetitions and obvious mistakes. The records and reports, however, must ensure that the members of Parliament leave ‘out nothing that adds to the meaning of the speech or illustrates the argument’.
The records of Hansard are protected. This freedom to print the words of Members without fear of libel was established in Britain in 1840, by the Parliament Papers Act (1840) which stipulated that all parliamentary publications were to be subject to the same legal protection as Members themselves.
This idea of parliamentary privilege, and the extent to which the proceedings of Parliament should be widely known, has undergone a revolution since Hansard’s inception at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Reports of debates before this time are difficult to locate or incomplete because of the contemporary belief that what was said inside the debating chambers should not be reported to the electorate or general population at large.
The belief was that Members would not act according to the best interests of the country, if they were under the pressure of public scrutiny.
The publication of anything said in the debating chambers was treated as a breach of parliamentary privilege and punished as such.
After the events of the English Civil War in the 1640s, and the increasingly influential role of propaganda, reports of parliamentary proceedings began to emerge as fictitious accounts of political clubs, such as the Report of the Senate of Lilliputia.
By 1771, and after extensive campaigning by the infamous John Wilkes, the suppression of parliamentary debates ended.
In that year, the then Lord Mayor of London, Brass Crosby, failed to stop the printing of details from the chamber.
He was called to report before the Houses of Parliament for his failure to stop what was an illegal publication, sent to the Tower of London, and put on trial. After a public outcry and a refusal on the part of the judges involved to try the Lord Mayor, Parliament ceased to punish those who published the proceedings of the Houses of Commons and Lords.
There followed numerous unofficial publications which documented the details of what Members said in the debating chambers. Initially William Cobbett proved to the most successful publisher of debates; he authored the History of Parliament from 1066 to 1802 and the Parliamentary Register, which saw the first concentrated effort to standardise the recording of debates.
Photo (c) University of Southampton; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Cobbett granted the publishing rights of Debates to a publishing family company, run by Luke Hansard (See Above – Printer to the Government) and his three sons.
However, after being tried for seditious libel, Cobbett and one of Luke Hansard’s sons, Thomas Curson Hansard, were found guilty and imprisoned. Cobbett’s financial situation soon collapsed and he sold the rights to Debates to Thomas Curson Hansard.
Initially, the Hansard publications were created by gathering reports from various sources (including, for example, newspapers, diaries and letters). By the 1830s, the name ‘Hansard’ appeared on the title page of It continued in this way throughout the nineteenth century.
This situation continued until 1909 when Britain decided – noting that many other countries, including Australia, Canada and the United States, had already standardised their records – to take control of the process of publication.
When the English Parliament initially assumed direct control of the publication, the name Hansard was removed as the publishing company was no longer to be involved.
This was changed in 1943, after the realisation that the name which had graced the title page for so long, and which had been copied in Canada and Australia, had not dropped out of usage and was the common, and popular, term for the documents.
Adapted from Parliamentary Discourse.