Hi, this is Gerry and welcome to my News Digest for February 27th, 2009. Thanks first of all to Sonja for her reactions to the last show. She mentioned Facebook and this is a name that just keeps cropping up . Firstly, I heard a positive story about a young single mother who was returning to the town of Oxford where she grew up after many years away. Oxford's quite a big place, but she quickly found old friends that she'd lost touch with, thanks to Facebook. On the other hand, the site has been in the news because of fears of what might happen to the information that you publish there. Who has a right to it? Is it safe?
On today's show, I've got some thoughts about another famous internet site: Wikipedia. I come to this through a story about our prime minister, Gordon Brown. After that you might be interested to hear that you can be sent to prison in England and Wales if your children are persistent school truants , that is if they stay away from school. Finally, a joke that tells you something about Welsh women and their awesome power.
There was a funny story in the British parliament the other week. It was about an argument between our Prime Minister, Mr Brown and the Leader of the Opposition , Mr Cameron. Before I tell you the story, though, a couple of remarks about these two men. The first remark is about how people like to address Mr Brown. I heard him doing a question and answer session on a popular radio station and I was struck by the fact that both the presenter and the people who were phoning in asked him if it was OK if they called him Gordon. This is a fairly recent trend and I think it's particular to Britain. There doesn't seem to be any situation where people are talking to each other directly where they don't use first names. This contrasts, I think, with the United States. Now, the Americans moved down the path of using first names in business and other semi-formal contexts earlier than the British, but when it comes to the highest elected offices in the land, they always use the title. And the reason they do this is out of respect not for the person but for the office. The Americans have a deep respect for their constitution and their system of government. If you ever you saw part of that great American TV series, The West Wing, you'll know that even the people working closely with the president in the White House always address the president as Mr President. In Britain, they use first names, I'm sure. Perhaps I just lived in Switzerland too long where it's clear when it's appropriate  to use first names, but I find the British just use first names too much these days.
And before I tell you the story from the news, a quick word about Mr "Dave" Cameron. He's the leader of the Conservative party and the Leader of the Opposition with a capital letter  L and a capital O. This is an official position. The leader of the second biggest party in parliament is paid a salary, similar to a minister in the government, to lead the opposition. The Leader of the Opposition forms a "shadow government " and it's the job of the members of this shadow government to critically question government ministers and offer alternative policies. Very different, therefore, from the Swiss system which looks for open debate rather than principled opposition.
And now, my story about Mr Brown and Mr Cameron. It started when Gordon Brown was in Davos, DA-vos as they usually call it here, for the World Economic Forum. He mentioned the painter Titian, Tiziano. He said that Titian finished what was to be his last great painting at the age of 90 and said, 'I'm finally beginning to learn how to paint'. The point of the story was that the world's economists and finance experts are still learning how to manage things. In any case Mr Cameron picked up on this story and then tried to ridicule Mr Brown the following week in the British parliament. He said it was typical of Mr Brown's arrogance to compare himself to some great man like Titian, but Titian had already died at the age of 86. In fact, little is known about Titian's birth so his age when he died is disputed. And that would have been the end of the story normally - a few laughs and jeers  in parliament, and then on to more important matters. Some people, however, got curious about the facts about Titian, and so they wanted to check them. Now where do you usually go to check facts such as these today? Wikipedia, of course. Unfortunately, Wikipedia had agreed with Gordon Brown's version, but some young worker in Mr Cameron's office had spotted this earlier and had changed the entry. They changed Titian's date of birth. But then somebody else found out that the entry had been changed by this person in the Conservative party and the whole story backfired  in Mr Cameron's face.
I liked the story because it was silly but also because it was about Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia is something that really divides people. If you've never used it, it's a sort of do-it-yourself encyclopedia. If you have special knowledge to share with people, you can write a chapter for the encyclopedia. If your information isn't correct, somebody else will correct it. A lot of people really hate Wikipedia, because they say that you can't write an encyclopedia in this way. These people say that you have to be sure that the best people, the biggest experts that you can find, write encyclopedias. And everything is checked before it is published. On the other hand, the Wikipedia fans say that no single expert can be trusted. You're more likely to arrive at the best version of the truth at any point in our developing understanding of the world through open debate and sharing of knowledge. The internet provides us for the first time with the means to share knowledge from all corners of the earth easily and quickly. Personally, I use Wikipedia a lot and I think the philosophy behind it is very inspiring. I think we just have to be cautious  about everything that we read - especially on the internet. In preparation of my next story I looked up truancy  in Wikipedia. There wasn't much of great interest but there was a glossary of slang terms for the failure to attend school. I knew some of the British terms such as bunking off or skiving, but I didn't know twagging or sagging or the Irish terms mitching or dossing. I also knew the American expression 'to play hooky' but I didn't know ditching or dipping. The Australians say wagging or bludging. Well, that's what Wikipedia says. And whatever you call it, it's a serious problem in Britain.
A parent is jailed for their child's truancy once a fortnight  every school term  in England and Wales. This was a statistic that shocked me the other day when it was reported on the news here. The law was changed in 2002 as a response to a growing school truancy problem. In order to put pressure on parents to ensure that their children attended school , it became possible to send the parents to prison if they failed to do so. But the problem hasn't gone away. The number of parents being taken to court because of their children's absence from school is rising but so is the level of truancy. The daughter of the first woman to be jailed for truancy has recently said that the punishment worked in her case. This girl went back to school because she felt so bad about her mother, but this same woman was then jailed a second time because of another daughter and this one never went back to school. The girl who was interviewed admitted that her mother had done her best to get her children to go to school but in the end there was nothing she could do. And this is the nub of the problem , it seems to me. Can parents be held responsible for the behaviour of their children? So what's the alternative? Jail the children? England and Wales already have the highest prison population in Western Europe with about twice as many people in prison, relative to population, as Switzerland. They also have the greatest number of children serving custodial sentences . There were over 500 10-14-year olds locked up in England and Wales in 2006, for example, for different crimes. I don't know what the solution is, but current policy isn't working, it seems to me.
It's the international rugby season again in Europe and the Welsh, the champions from last year, are riding high . They've just won their first two games in the Six Nations championship. The six are the four so-called "home nations" - that's England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland - to which are added France and Italy. You may have noticed that there's a single Irish team, not separate teams for the Republic and Northern Ireland. It's always been that way in rugby. For the Welsh, beating the English at rugby is always a highlight. It's the one sport where we have a chance! And we did it again on St Valentine's Day. Rugby's the national sport in Wales - no doubt about that! I was in Rome a few years ago with one of my sons, and by accident  we chose to be there on the weekend that the Welsh were in town for a match against Italy. Every pub and every bar was full of them, but what I thought was interesting was that the fans were made up of huge family groups: not just the men, but the women and children, too. Grandma and Granddad, Mum and Dad, Aunties and Uncles - huge clans of them. All dressed up in fan costumes. It got me thinking about the place of women in Welsh society.
My father always maintained that Wales was a matriarchy - a country controlled by the mothers. The stereotype Welsh mother isn't perhaps as ambitious for her children as the stereotypical Indian or Jewish mother, but they're powerful nonetheless. I remember hearing the Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert telling a story about his mother and what might happen if ever she came into contact with the Taliban: it was quite clear to him, who would come out on top. So with this in mind , let me tell you a joke. I heard this recently on the radio. A little boy in Wales comes home from school and tells his mother: I've got a part in the school play. And his mother says: Well, that's good. What part is it? And he replies: It's the part of the Welsh husband. And his mother snorts  and says: Well, you get back there and you tell them that you want a speaking part! So you see, that's why I do these podcasts. It's the only chance that I have as a man in this country to say anything.
And on that confessional note, this is Gerry saying goodbye for another two weeks. Take care!
 cropping up: appearing  persistent school truants: children who regularly fail to go to school  Leader of the Opposition: the "shadow" Prime Minister (listen below for more explanation)  appropriate: suitable, good according to the situation  capital letter: big letter (e.g. L)  shadow government: If you shadow somebody, you follow them like a shadow follows its object.  laughs and jeers: mocking laughter and comments (making fun of people  backfired: exploded in the wrong direction (here: instead of people laughing at Mr Brown, they laughed at Mr Cameron)  cautious: careful (here also: sceptical)  truancy: the act of not going to school when you should  fortnight: (UK) two weeks  school term: one section of the school year (there are usually three terms in a school year)  attend school: go to school  nub of the problem: the essential part, the heart of the problem  serving custodial sentences: being punished by the court by being kept in a prison or other secure place  riding high: having a period of success  by accident: by chance  with this in mind: remembering this  snorts: makes a noise through her mouth and nose to show that she is angry