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Archives for July 2010

Radio Studio Web Cams

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Julian Worricker Julian Worricker | 16:48 UK time, Tuesday, 27 July 2010

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JulianWorricker.jpgI was presenting the programme from Manchester today; I do my Monday and Tuesday from here once a month, and Winifred does the same on her Wednesday and Thursday.

During a quiet moment in today's programme - and there weren't many of those - I found myself glancing up at the studio camera. It's small and unobtrusive enough to go almost unnoticed, but when I looked at it today it reminded me of two things: firstly the internal debate several years ago about the introduction of the webcam in radio studios, and secondly arguably the worst moment of Gordon Brown's recent election campaign.

The latter is a reference to the former Prime Minister's encounter with Gillian Duffy on the streets of Rochdale. After he made his unguarded remarks about Mrs Duffy in his car, they were - you'll recall - played back to him when he appeared live on Jeremy Vine's Radio 2 programme. The studio in which he briefly leant forwards, resting his brow on his hand, was the selfsame one that I was sitting in today. It resonated with me at the time because I happened to be presenting on the BBC's TV news channel that lunchtime, and watched Mr Brown's reaction knowing exactly where he was and who was likely to be watching him from the adjoining cubicle. I don't suppose he had time to consider the décor around him, but the dark plum walls didn't improve from appearing on the small screen.

The webcam debate is a more interesting one. As someone who presents on both radio and television I've always had misgivings about the blurring of the former medium to make it more like the latter. One of radio's many charms is - surely - the pictures it allows the listeners to build in their minds. Pictures of their choosing, not ours.

I remember when webcams were first introduced and I was presenting on Radio Five Live at the time. One of my fellow presenters - who will remain nameless - took such exception to their arrival that he covered the one in his studio with a paper bag. Of course in the end he could only take his rebellion so far, but I remember having a lot of sympathy with him at the time, and still do. After all, as a committed 'Archers' fan I don't want to know what the actor who plays Jolene looks like in real life; Jolene exists in my head, and that's where she should stay.

Julian Worricker presents You and Yours on BBC Radio 4

Risky Assessment

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Jon Douglas | 17:01 UK time, Thursday, 22 July 2010

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riskassessment.jpgA new series of our sister programme, Face the Facts, started today and the topic? Well, it's one we've touched on previously. In January, Face the Facts reported on the tower blocks which broke the law on fire safety, potentially putting residents' lives at risk. In March, we reported on the Fire Service training college in Gloucestershire which had also been in breach of fire safety legislation when part of its premises burnt down. Now we've discovered central government buildings don't always comply with fire safety law either and, more surprising still, that includes the very government department responsible for fire safety policy in England and Wales. You can 'listen again' to the tale in full here.

What we don't have (and it's not through want of trying) is a definitive list of the state-owned or occupied buildings where the worst fire safety failures have been found. At least, not yet....

Central government offices are classed as 'Crown premises'. But 'Crown premises' include all manner of buildings - palaces, prisons, job centres, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) etc. Inspectors are employed to check the owners/occupiers of such buildings follow the law on fire safety and keep their inhabitants as safe as reasonably possible. In England, that duty falls to the Crown Premises Inspection Group. It has 9 inspectors with 8000 Crown premises to monitor (last year it inspected 198 of them). Where serious breaches of the law are found, those inspectors issue 'Crown enforcement notices' requiring urgent fire safety improvements. So, using the freedom of information act, we asked for copies of all such notices issued since new fire safety laws came into effect on 1st October 2006.

At the time of writing, the Crown Premises Inspection Group (CPIG) is still considering whether or not it can release copies of those notices. It told us our request raised "complex public interest considerations" which it needs more time to address. We've been told it will release any notices it can, but the suggestion is that there might be security issues involved in releasing at least some of those documents if, for example, they reveal details of premises such as high-security prisons. CPIG needs to check with the premises concerned that security would not be compromised before it can release the information. Fair enough. But we already know one of those notices relates to an office block (Eland House - the HQ of the Dept of Communities & Local Government in London) so surely such sensitivities don't apply to all of the other premises where Crown enforcement notices were issued? We'll have to wait and see...

The difference here, as we covered in today's programme, is that people working within Crown premises have Crown immunity. It means breaching fire safety law won't land them in prison or result in a fine. Meanwhile, in the private sector, prosecutions are going up and courts are taking a tough stance where the most serious breaches are found. The fashion chain, New Look, received the highest fine to date under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order. It was ordered to pay £400,000 following a major fire at its Oxford Street store in April 2007.

John Douglas is a senior producer on Face the Facts and You and Yours

You & Yours is on BBC Radio 4 at 1200 weekdays. Listen to today's episode on the Radio 4 web site.

Volunteering for scientific research and Interviewing Professor Tony Judt

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Peter White Peter White | 12:33 UK time, Monday, 19 July 2010

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peterandtonyjudt.jpgJust how far should we presenters go when it comes to personal involvement in our own programmes? I must admit there were moments in one of my most recent projects when I wondered if I'd rather overdone it: volunteering to have my brain scanned, and then laid out in pictures for all to see on the In Touch website, in an attempt to discover what happens inside the brain when a blind person reads Braille. I had good reasons to do it: I'm an unusually fast Braille reader (a lot of blind children, very bright in other ways, find it difficult), and I wanted to know how the process worked. A blog's too short to go into the exact science, but the gist was that research done so far suggests in some mysterious way the brain knows that although a Braille reader is touching something with their fingers, they are in fact reading text, something normally done with the eyes, and therefore calls in the bit of the brain that normally deals with seeing. What I agreed to do was to submit myself to an MRI scan, where your brain is effectively photographed, and then to do a number of tests involving first ordinary touching, and then reading Braille, so that the scientists could watch my brain at work. Then, by a series of mild stimulations, they "interfered" with the bit of my brain which normally takes on the job of interpreting vision. Clever stuff, eh? The problem is, you volunteer for these things blithely when they are just at the ideas stage, and suddenly find yourself facing the reality of being wired up in a kind of tube in a Boston neuroscientist's lab subjecting yourself to a series of (admittedly) mild electric shocks!

But that's not the worst of it; what I hadn't allowed for was the litany of questions I would have to answer before I was allowed to expose myself to the experiments: family history, health, about medication, previous operations and the presence of any metal objects about my person, at which point the whole radio audience had to be told about my denture (until then an easy secret to guard on the radio), which had to be ceremonially removed. Enter one rather sibilant-sounding presenter! And serve me right, I hear many of you cry, for being a show-off in the first place! But the tests do seem to support the thesis that the brain can be very resourceful when it has to solve a problem in a different way, and the hope is that all this experimentation will lead to ways to help children read Braille more quickly and effectively. We'll be keeping tabs on that on In Touch.

Also while in the States I did an interview that seems to have caused a considerable stir. I love reading history in my spare time, and am a great admirer of Professor Tony Judt who's written a wonderfully perceptive book about Europe since the Second World War. But eighteen months ago he developed a virulent form of motor neurone disease, which has left him paralysed from the neck down, and in a situation where, as he put it himself, the only part of him which would do as it was told was his mind. He agreed to be interviewed and when I went to see him in his New York apartment, now adapted to cater for his needs, he was as deeply impressive, candid and unflinching as I'd expected him to be.

For him it was something of an endurance test. The mere act of talking is exhausting in itself as he is on a breathing machine, and yet he answered my questions fluently and unhesitatingly for over an hour. In other circumstances that rather breathless delivery might have caused us anxiety for the recording: in this case, it was absolutely intrinsic to understanding his situation as he spelled out how he copes, physically and intellectually. It was broadcast as a special edition of "No Triumph, No Tragedy" last month, and so many of you have asked to hear it again, or indeed for the first time, that for the next week it will be a podcast on the You and Yours website.

But obviously some people never learn, because I've also now somehow allowed myself to be persuaded to do a You and Yours version of the successful television series "Who Do you Think You Are?" I don't know what they're going to come up with, but my mum's told me enough in the past to be very much afraid. We're planning to do this on August 6th.

And also, as promised but not yet delivered, alternate blogs from me in future will contain specific information about the disability issues we're covering on You and Yours, In Touch and elsewhere on Radio Four, and will be sent to all those people who previously subscribed to the Disability Newsletter. That information will be available on the blog of course, but if you wish to be included amongst those who are emailed it automatically, contact us to get your name added to the list. Good Listening!

Click here to download the special podcast of Peter's interview with Professor Tony Judt

Peter White presents You and Yours and In Touch on BBC Radio 4

Play Me, I'm Yours

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Julian Worricker Julian Worricker | 14:46 UK time, Monday, 12 July 2010

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boywithpianoforblog.jpgIt brought together a German woman with her two children, tourists from Seoul and Montreal, a group of four City workers nursing pints outside the nearby pub, and several very gifted amateur musicians. I'm talking about an upright piano, left apparently at random in the wide pedestrianised thoroughfare between St. Paul's Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge in central London, which absolutely anyone could play if they wished to. It was part of the cultural initiative called "Play me, I'm Yours", and it featured on today's edition of You & Yours.

I went to see it last Thursday with colleague and producer, Catherine Carr. Our brief was to record some of the piano playing, talk to some of those brave enough to have a go, and gauge the reaction of those listening. It was a genuinely uplifting experience.

Firstly, the talent of those playing was often breathtaking. One student, who claimed that he only took up the piano two years previously, gave us a medley of - among others - Rachmaninov, Chopin and Mozart. Initially tentative, he soon became absorbed in his playing, so much so that he seemed entirely oblivious of what was going on around him...including Catherine's and my potential intrusion involving a microphone and recording equipment. When he finished, a young lad from Belgium who'd also been very modest about his musical achievements, maintained the high performance standard.

Secondly, it brought out the best in passers-by. Complete strangers who wouldn't usually dream of starting up a conversation seemed entirely at ease when chatting to a neighbour about the music they were both listening to. There were smiles, throwaway observations, and a genuine appreciation of what was going on, even among those who were the first to admit they knew very little about the music being played.

Of course the other reason I was sent out to cover this was because I play the piano myself. I began learning when I was five, and reached a reasonable standard as a teenager. These days, though, standards have noticeably slipped, although I still enjoy it as a source of relaxation when there's a need to escape the rigours of the BBC. So I knew - and Catherine was egging me on - that at some point during this recording I was going to have to play this particular piano myself. In front of all these passers-by. Immediately after a brilliant student.

Thankfully I was able to remember the start of the second movement of one of my favourite Beethoven sonatas, the Pathetique. The fingers landed largely in the right places, we recorded as much as we needed, and I decided to quit while I was ahead. The onlookers clapped more generously than I deserved - egged on by Catherine once again - and I was able to return to the office with my reputation just about intact. If you were there and you applauded, thank you very much!

Julian Worricker presents You and Yours on BBC Radio 4

A Front Row in History

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Winifred Robinson | 15:38 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010

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chryslerhub.jpgI don't know who was first to say it - perhaps you do - but work in journalism provides you with a front row in history.
I certainly had some experience of that, reporting for newspapers, radio and television. I've covered riots in Birmingham and London, the Omagh bombing, the trial of the boys who killed James Bulger.

This kind of work can be fascinating of course, also deeply disturbing. Sometimes though you wonder if it isn't better to spend a working life shaping events, rather than observing and recording them - front row or not. You can also feel like you know a bit about a lot of subjects but not an awful lot about anything very much. That's not to say the work isn't interesting - of course it is.

So it's always satisfying when we can tell an expert something he or she didn't already know. We did this on Wednesday with a report on a shortage of spare parts for cars. Professor Garel Rhys of Cardiff Business School, an expert on the industry, told us that the You and Yours team had provided the first examples he's heard of people in the UK left waiting for car parts for weeks and months. He said the Ford Motor Company in the USA had predicted this would happen at the time of the emergency bail out of its rivals General Motors and Chrysler in 2008/9. Prof. Rhys explained how car makers have contracted out the parts business to small, specialist companies. Sometimes a handful of workers can be supplying parts for tens of thousands of cars. On top of that, car companies are basing themselves on the Japanese who attribute their success to systems that strip out waste. As a result, they carry not stock by operate a 'just in time' approach instead, ordering the part you need from a supplier, only as you need it, and not a moment before. What's happened is that although the big car makers have ridden out the recession which saw sales fall by 30% worldwide their suppliers had a tougher time of it with 300 companies going to the wall. Although this is a small proportion of the 17,000 worldwide, it matters a lot when the missing link in the supply chain makes the bit you need.

We heard about it from our listeners - Ryan Weaves and Rosie Sedgwick who'd been left waiting months for parts. Several more of you emailed while the item was on air. According to Prof. Rhys, the manufacturers have no choice but to find other suppliers and this can take investment and time. So people are being left waiting.

Perhaps we created a footnote in the history of the automotive industry with Prof. Rhys in the front row. It's good to turn the tables from time to time.

Winifred Robinson presents You and Yours on BBC Radio 4

Triumphed

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Shari Vahl | 16:43 UK time, Monday, 5 July 2010

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triumph303.jpgThe phone rang and a chirpy gentleman asked me if I thought it was reasonable to have to wash and dry a motorbike after every use. Spluttering slightly at why on earth a You and Yours journalist rather than a Top Gear type would be asked such a question he went on to explain the wheels on his new Triumph Bonneville SE were corroding after only three months of riding. After complaining to the dealer they'd pointed at the manual - yes, that book you get AFTER you've spent your money - which explicitly says, if you don't wash and dry your bike after every use, bits of it will corrode. I hummed and haahed for ages about this. I looked at my car which was desperately in need of a wash. Would it be reasonable to have to wash and dry my car every time I used it, or watch it corrode before my very eyes?

The Triumph Bonneville SE is a modern re-working of a classic - much like BMWs Mini or Fiat's 500. It's a beautiful thing and so it should be at a book price of 6500 pounds. And some of those who buy them (yes we did sigh deeply on the programme thinking of Steve McQueen and his Triumph TR6 Trophy Bird in The Great Escape) evoke an age of care free motoring where style sometimes trampled on substance. In fact many Bonnie owners now say one of the great things about the new bike is they actually work.

We decided this was a story, and certainly the question of reasonableness was one we had to put to Triumph. I contacted Triumph and time ticked on with no response. First it appears my email got stuck in their spam system, and then I misspelt the name of the press officer. It was getting a bit close to broadcast and then we received an email from Triumph saying they wouldn't be able to find anyone suitable in advance of our piece. It's important to be fair to organisations, and as I'd messed up the email address, reducing their response time, we decided to put off the broadcast for 10 days or so, to give Triumph more time to 'find someone suitable'. But not a squeak. I rang and rang, and discovered the press office had gone on holiday. I finally found another press officer, who promised a response so I sent an email to him. It got stuck in their email spam system and he didn't get it for four hours!! Then I rang and rang again, and finally got a statement from them saying 'sorry we couldn't find anyone suitable in advance of the broadcast'.

It came as quite a surprise that Triumph - a company expanding rapidly all over the world - would run away from a few complaining customers who had a problem. Phil West from Motorcycle News said people love Triumph so much they sometimes tattoo its name on their bodies. This story has provoked much chatter in the forums, not least because people don't like Triumph, the creator of their beloved Bonnies, being criticised .

I think it's time I went out on one to test for myself. Got a spare helmet anyone?

Click here to listen to Shari's report on the Triumph Bonneville SE motorcycle

Shari Vahl is a reporter on You and Yours

You & Yours is on BBC Radio 4 at 1200 weekdays. Listen to today's episode on the Radio 4 web site.

Abolishing a Law

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Julian Worricker Julian Worricker | 12:37 UK time, Thursday, 1 July 2010

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finger-on-phone-303.jpgThe quality of any phone-in programme relies heavily on the strength of the callers but next week we'll be relying on the ingenuity of listeners even more than usual. On Tuesday's Call You and Yours we're taking the lead of deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and asking you which law you'd most like to see abolished.

We can claim to have given early voice to this notion - in the run-up to the 2005 General Election we used Call You and Yours to compile a Listeners' Manifesto. One of the top five suggestions was that no new law should be introduced without another being abolished.

A quick straw poll in the office revealed an end to road speed restrictions would be popular. There was one vote for speed cameras, one for speed limits on motorways - that from the tiny, male contingent on the team. By contrast Winifred lives a life of such unparalleled perfection she couldn't think of a single law she'd like to do without.

On the Today Programme, the Taxpayers Alliance suggested the ID Cards Act and the Digital Economy Act should be ditched. And the TUC wants to scrap the VAT exemption on private school fees.

Anyway we want your contributions to this Government-inspired debate. I'll be presenting Call You and Yours on Tuesday July 6th from 12-1. The number to call on the day is 03700 100 444. Lines are open from 10-1.
Or you can email youandyours@bbc.co.uk at any time.

Julian Worricker presents You and Yours on BBC Radio 4

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