Birt spared taxing time as viewers focus on 'big issues': A Welsh audience examining the BBC's future was not diverted by the Director-General's pay deal. Michael Leapman reports

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The Independent Online
OPINION formers and the envious may think that the way John Birt is paid is the current big issue for the BBC, but viewers and listeners in Wales have other things on their minds. What they wanted to talk to the Director-General about on Tuesday night was violence, bad language, Eldorado and the Welsh Symphony Orchestra.

About 200 guests gathered at the headquarters of BBC Wales in Llandaff, Cardiff, for one of a series of regional discussions of the BBC's future. It was Mr Birt's first public appearance since the row about his tax arrangements, but the matter was raised only once in the two-hour meeting, when it was brushed aside with the promise - unfulfilled - that it would be dealt with later. As a precaution, the press had been banished to an adjoining studio to watch on television monitors.

Mr Birt, no doubt expecting to be called to account on the issue, looked uneasy as he walked on to the platform with his fellow panellists Geraint Talfan Davies, Controller of BBC Wales, and Dr Gwyn Jones, the Welsh representative on the Board of Governors. But the audience - many from pressure groups such as the Campaign for Quality Television and the Voice of the Listener and Viewer - were not about to be diverted from what they saw as the real agenda.

Mr Birt began by saying he was relieved to be out of London, and was there principally to listen. The first thing he had to listen to was a series of complaints about the violence and bad language in last Saturday's episode of Casualty. 'I don't use that language to my wife and I feel upset when I hear it used in our living room,' a grey-haired man argued. 'They know the standards, they know what's right and wrong,' another said.

Mr Birt cocked his ear. 'I think,' he intoned, 'I hear a real concern coming out here.' He had objected to the episode in question. 'But the BBC must have a balanced mix that mirrors the world as we find it. Many people have strong views and express them in vivid language.' A middle-aged man agreed. 'I don't want my children to be protected from it,' he declared. Nor did he want Mr Birt to be protected from questions about 'mismanagement', including the fuss about his salary arrangements. 'We'll get to that later,' Vincent Kane, the moderator, promised.

Brickbats were thrown at Eldorado and compliments paid to One Foot in the Grave, Radio 1 and even ITV's The Bill, which one woman clearly believed was a BBC programme. Then came the Welsh questions.

'The BBC talks to Wales but no time is given for Wales to talk to the BBC,' a woman complained. To remedy that a man asked a question in Welsh. John Birt picked up earphones for a simultaneous translation.

'I have a special feeling for Wales,' Mr Birt insisted, removing his earphones. 'I come here regularly.' He thought the symphony orchestra, half sponsored by the BBC, was safe.

More complaints. A man who still called Radio 3 the Third Programme asked why it could not be more like the new Classic FM; another complained that too much money was spent on management consultants; and a third said that the BBC was suppressing sensitive plays and programmes on behalf of the Establishment.

This aroused Mr Birt. 'How many people think that the BBC is part of the Establishment?' he asked. All but one member of the audience thought so, it turned out.

'I'm frankly alarmed to hear it,' Mr Birt admitted. 'If that's what's coming out, something is going wrong.'

But by the end he had recovered his composure and said it had been 'a highly enjoyable and very valuable discussion'.

Most enjoyable of all was the woman who had no television, only radio, and was miffed that this disqualified her from paying the licence fee. Keen to contribute, she had sent the BBC a cheque but it had not been cashed.

(Photograph omitted)