A controversial animal rights activist with a criminal record is helping to train a new Midlands generation of digital media journalists.

Opinionated Margaret Weatherby - who tends to storm out of interviews when she gets angry - is helping to hone the skills of 120 students at Wolverhampton University.

The virtual celebrity interviewee is the brainchild of senior lecturer in Interactive Multimedia Communication Jim Davis.

Mr Davis spent four years on a part-time basis creating his RecordingCoach software concept, which he built over a six month period at weekends and evenings.

He came up with the idea to address problems students were facing when they went out-and-about to carry out sound and video interviews.

Through lack of experience and "situation awareness" they would sometimes return with a flawed product suffering from sound problems, missed interview lines, background noise and such-like problems.

Mr Davis created the inter-active programme featuring Margaret to help address some of those problems.

He has also created a back story to go along with the character which helps students to research properly - vital in preparing for celebrity interviews.

The system cost the equivalent £120,000 to create, with friends and colleagues offering in-kind support and help: the actress playing Margaret, for instance, gave her time for free.

RecordingCoach has also recently been recognised nationally.

The system gained a commendation in the e-Tools strand of national e-Tutor competition, run by the Higher Education Academy - a body set up to help institutions deliver best practice to students. The programme works by interviewers choosing seven from a list of ten questions which can lead, via supplementary questions, to one of three stories.

An on-screen "microphone" is controlled by a mouse: if it goes too near to Margaret or to the interviewer the vocal recording is distorted.

And if it goes much too close to Margaret, she's liable to get into a bad temper and let you know about it.

It is up to interviewees to control the tone and direction of interview to ensure they get to the story.

Students fire off questions by choosing a line of enquiry and keying in a digit on the keyboard which prompts the computer to voice the query.

Margaret then answers. For instance if you asked "When did you become a vegetarian?" she may reply with something along the lines of: "Why do you ask, have you not done any research?"

Mr Davis, who's previous experience includes working as an art director and studio manager, said: "It is a valuable training aid for digital media students before they are let loose with expensive sound recording equipment that is always in demand.

"It enables students to build up their technical skills and confidence and improve their interview technique, and tells them where they are going wrong.

"Margaret is no pushover either, she's a bit like a cross between Germaine Greer and Janet Street-Porter, in attitude. She'll answer questions happily enough - but if your questions are not to her liking, or you push too hard, she'll have a strop and storm off."

Mr Davis said the system teaches people to prepare properly and to think on their feet.

For more information about the programme visit www.recordingcoach.net...SUPL: