The consumer’s champion calls it a day after 30 years

North Down woman records final edition of long-running show

 

By Ruth Dowds

 

LINDA McAuley has been at the helm of the BBC Radio Ulster consumer programme On Your Behalf for almost 30 years, so it comes as little surprise that two weeks after her last broadcast she is still finding her balance in a less structured life.

The Bangor broadcaster’s last show was aired on June 22 and she admits that losing the routine it provided has felt ‘liberating and yet strange’ in these early days of retirement.

Plans for a month of travelling to attend a family wedding in California and then on to visit her son in Australia will undoubtedly help her to acclimatise, however.

When she returns, Linda hopes to put her vast knowledge of consumer affairs to good use, though she hasn’t yet decided quite how.

“I’m hoping to use that knowledge in a different direction because you can’t learn that much for nearly 30 years and then say, ‘Well that’s the end of that’.

“I do feel that the profile I have and the fact that when I’m standing in a shop people recognise my voice, is valuable. I think I could carry on using it in different directions in the future, but how, I don’t know yet,” she explains.

Her experience of talking to and interviewing people from all walks of life across the province has taught her that, ‘People are the same, north, south, east and west’.

She adds: “The best part of my job has been going out to people in different parts of Northern Ireland. The accents might be different, but the heart of Northern Ireland people is just the same.”

She delights in the fact that even after almost three decades she has continued to learn new things through On Your Behalf.

“I have said to people many times on the programme, ‘Really, I didn’t know that’,” she says, adding that Radio Ulster dedicated a programme last Christmas to some of the information she and her team of experts had been able to share with listeners.

It might seem obvious to read the small print in consumer contracts, she says, but often even a sharp eye can miss important details.

She points to one couple who got in touch with the programme about a travel insurance policy they had been using for a number of years.

“It wasn’t until they actually went to claim that they realised they didn’t have cover for Spain.

“It said, ‘covers Europe’ and then in very small print it said ‘excl. Spain’, which is the area most of the claims came from. They didn’t realise and we actually got the company to write out ‘excluding Spain’ rather than ‘excl’ so that it might jump out more at people.

“Taking out travel insurance and realising you have the right policy are different things altogether,” says Linda.

She counts herself amongst the many people who have learned the hard way not to click on links sent via text or attached to social media posts.

Just a few weeks ago the programme was contacted by a man whose wife had recently died.

At this most difficult of times for him, he was confronted by a Facebook post containing his wife’s photograph and accurate details of her death and funeral arrangements.

The post invited people who knew her to click on a link to make a monetary donation.

Says Linda: “He wanted us to spread the word to other people because it’s a scam doing the rounds right across Northern Ireland, right across the UK and it’s a nasty way for fraudsters to get money.

“You learn not to click on links. As I would describe it, go out and come back in the front door through the proper website.”

Linda also emphasises the importance of paying for items and services using a credit card, where possible.

“There is absolutely no protection with cash,” she says.

“A company might say they don’t do credit cards and ask for it to be sent by bank transfer, but there is no protection there at all, so you should at least start asking more questions about why they don’t take credit cards.”

Linda continues: “Again, if people are paying by Paypal or other sites like that, they don’t realise they have broken the golden connection between you and the retailer. If you put a third party into it, it turns into a triangle and damages the joint liability that you would have if you used a credit card or even a debit card.

“Even if you just put a little bit on your credit card it still gives you protection.

“Something else that I don’t think people realise is that when they shop online they have extra protection because of the distance shopping regulations. You can return the goods within 30 days.”

She advises that any scam texts are forwarded to the mobile phone provider using the number 7726 so that a dossier of evidence can be built up with the intention of shutting down the website.

Another common way that people find themselves cheated out of money is by paying for services such as renewing a driving licence, passport or global health card.

Says Linda: “These sorts of things are free to do but some people end up paying to have someone else do it for them because they keyed it into Google and didn’t go to the safe site.

“If you go to a government site it’ll have an ‘https’ and a little padlock, so you know you are at the right, secure site.”

One piece of potentially life-saving advice she is keen to pass on came out of a programme featuring On Your Behalf’s motoring expert and another contributor who is a wheelchair user.

“We were talking about safety and driving and calling roadside breakdown, that kind of thing,” says Linda.

“He said to me the best thing to do if you break down on a motorway is obviously to get to the other side of the barrier. But if you can’t, and this amazed me, he said leave your ignition on one click because if you’re shunted from behind your airbag will protect you. I never knew that.

“It’s things like that I have learned year after year, and I don’t know everything, but I’ve learned to ask the right questions about what can go wrong and what you can do to protect yourself.”

She is also all too well aware of the frustrations of trying to contact large businesses and corporations only to find yourself stuck in an endless cycle of call centre conversations that never seem to resolve the problem.

Linda advises: “You can look up the chief executive of that company and quite often an email to a chief executive can take you two leaps higher than you were, which sometimes gets you noticed.

“Sometimes it’s just about getting noticed. That’s what happens so often with On Your Behalf. People have done the right thing, they have done what they should have done, they have tried their best but nobody has been listening.

“It’s only when the email comes into the press office from the BBC that someone takes notice and that’s why we’ve had the huge successes that we’ve had. People just sometimes need bigger guns behind them.”

The joy of the programme for Linda has been the way in which it has enabled her to make a difference to people’s lives.

“It has given us such pleasure On Your Behalf to make things better for people. It’s not a magic wand but we used to joke in the office that my wand was working when we got a reply from a company and someone was getting a full refund.

“Scammers are cleverer now and the amount of faith people have in what they see online, what they read online, has exacerbated things, but scams will always be there and it’s up to us to protect ourselves,” says Linda.

One recent intervention by the programme made a significant impact on the life of a recently widowed Belfast man who was struggling to raise three sons whilst juggling work commitments.

The man was trying to re-mortgage his house and in the process of trying to do so he discovered his credit rating had been damaged by someone who had bought a phone in his name and built up bad debt.

Says Linda: “I drove down the Newtownards Road to where he was working to do the interview and it was very emotional because he was so upset about what had been happening about his wife and his children.”

While Linda was carrying out the interview her producer was working away in the background and, after contacting the company involved, managed to wipe the bad debt attached to the man’s name before the interview had even ended.

“The gratitude from the man… we really made such a difference to his life,” says Linda.

“It was only a small part but it was a bit that he couldn’t cope with because he was also coping with three children who had lost their mother and this extra problem was just tipping him over and we sorted that, literally within an hour.

“It was an absolute delight and a pleasure to be able to do things because we were able to help where the consumer didn’t have the strength or the power. That’s why I’ve enjoyed it so much.”

Linda’s last programme on June 22 marked the importance of that trouble-shooting legacy by talking to the various experts who have been so closely associated with the programme over the last 30 years.

These included representatives from trading standards, the Consumer Council, consumer rights champion Jimmy Hughes, disability groups and Disability Action.

However, there was also some humour thrown in with a skit from the Hole in the Wall Gang who mocked Linda’s North Down Gold Coast ‘posh’ accent, much to her amusement.

Actor and playwright Dan Gordon also delivered a marvellous monologue in which he likened On Your Behalf to the department store Grace Brothers in Are You Being Served, with Linda cast as the Mrs Slocombe of the piece.

Linda says she will also miss the funny times she enjoyed with Stephen Nolan, courtesy of their running gag of her tracking him down in the studio, even when he moved from Broadcasting House to Blackstaff Square.

Linda elaborates, “I arrived in the studio at 10.03am every Friday and he would say, ‘are you here again, what’s that woman doing here, get her out’.

Dan Gordon’s monologue is available on BBC Sounds and can be accessed using the link

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0j6mby4