Whether it has been Hansard – the official record of parliamentary debates – or newspaper reports of parliamentary activities and government decisions, the reporting of Parliament has been an important part of the parliamentary story.
When New Zealand established a Hansard service in 1867, it was one of the world's first independent and official records of parliamentary debates. Today, Hansard is recorded first on digital audiotape, but for most of its history, Hansard reporters had to be top-of-the-line shorthand reporters reaching speeds of 180 words and more a minute, without mistakes. They had to understand political affairs and parliamentary procedures, and in the days when Members of Parliament (MPs) peppered their speeches with Latin quotations and literary allusions, the Hansard reporters had to know what these meant.
Hansard takes its name from Thomas Hansard whose family firm printed the debates in the British Parliament for over 60 years from the early 19th century. New Zealand is not the only country to call its official debates by this name; so too, do Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Zimbabwe.
Before 1867, politicians and public relied on newspapers for reports of what had gone on in the House. Perhaps because they didn't want to pay newspapers for this, MPs found their speeches misquoted and votes recorded incorrectly, and some newspapers refused to record proceedings in depth. Newspaper editor C.C.N Barron offered to manage a parliamentary staff of reporters for a trial period. This proved so successful that he continued as chief Hansard reporter for the next 29 years.
The Hansard staff was all male for many years. Women were thought to be unsuited, physically and temperamentally, to the work and long hours. The first two women were appointed in 1962, and since then women have come to dominate the staff; the last male reporter retired in 1979.
From the very first days, New Zealand's press had full access to Parliament, unlike their British counterparts. MPs needed journalists desperately, because they were the only ones who recorded what went on in the chamber, even if these records had mistakes. Some of them were full of bias, too, because several early MPs owned newspapers and altered reports of the day's proceedings. By the 1870s, the press gallery was virtually an independent group, reporting on debates and parliamentary life and running cartoons and satire about politics and MPs. The place was an important training ground for some of the country's top journalists.
The relationship between the press and politicians has always been an awkward one. MPs have not always liked how they have been reported and have not enjoyed being ignored. In the 1890s Premier Richard Seddon tried to force the Evening Post to name its source of information for a story critical of him. When the journalist refused, Seddon attempted to have him banned from Parliament. Other MPs were only too keen to pass on information to journalists, even if it led to problems. In 1901 Parliament fined the senior pressman in the gallery £15 for publishing select committee information early. In 1929, actions like this were formally made breaches of privilege under standing orders.
As question time and competition for stories between newspapers heated up in the 1970s, sensationalist themes appeared more frequently in news reports. The government and politics, rather than actions in the House, became the focus. The gallery itself was crowded with 50 or 60 accredited journalists, and more demanded entry. Some politicians interfered in the gallery – in 1984 the government tried to make the journalists pay rent for their office space in Parliament House. Now, the media is more usually regarded as an important and useful resource, and parties and ministers have their own press staff.
Women have been reporting on Parliament since the 1880s, but it was not until 1965 that the first woman, Fran Collett, was appointed to the press gallery. In taking up this position, she had to agree to keep out of the bar, which was the source of some of the best political stories. Early on, women reported from the ladies' gallery, and some had managed to send their stories to some major papers. Women's success in gaining the vote in 1893 made them more interested in politics, and the number of women reporters grew in the 1890s. Forrest Ross wrote as 'Pamela', and her reports appeared in the Press as 'Peeps at Parliament'. Stella Henderson, a law graduate, was another early woman reporter in the House. She had to write her articles from the ladies' tearoom after the press gallery refused to allow her paper, the Lyttelton Times, to give her its press gallery seat.
On 25 March 1936 a housewife in Auckland could turn on her radio and listen to Parliament. It was the start of the first regular parliamentary broadcast in the world. This major step in taking Parliament to the people was one way the new Labour government felt it could get New Zealanders to take a lively interest in national affairs. It was also another way to get information out as there was a suspicion that the major newspapers were biased against the government. For this reason, the government kept a tight control on which debates could be transmitted, and who could speak, during the first year of broadcasting.
Broadcasting has continued ever since, with some ups and downs. The broadcasts revealed the characteristic commotion of the House. Every remark and whisper, cough, sneeze and rustle of paper could be heard. The continuity announcer had to try to cut out all the unwanted or embarrassing conversations accidentally picked up by the microphones and fill in the sudden silences and gaps in the debates. Some MPs played to the airwaves as they realised that their constituents were listening, and the evening speaking slots from 7.30 p.m. to 9 p.m. were the most prized.
Once television began beaming into New Zealand homes in the evenings from 1960, the popularity of the evening parliamentary broadcast fell away. Those MPs who wanted to make sure their constituents still heard them focussed their energies on the afternoon sessions. One Waikato MP would interject frequently during speeches until the Speaker referred to him, after which he would head out for a pre-dinner drink, secure in the knowledge that his constituents in the milking sheds back home knew their MP was on the job.