Little Britain, starring David Walliams and Matt Lucas, got its start on BBC3.
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Should it really be BBC3 that gets the chop?

If approved by the BBC Trust, the decision would see BBC3 lose its on-air slot and become online-only. Does it deserve the axe?

At the Oxford Media Convention last week, BBC Director General Tony Hall made an important speech about the corporation’s artistic and financial future. At its heart was the conundrum facing many media organisations these days: the need to do more stuff with less money.

The BBC is implementing cuts of 20 per cent, and in his speech Hall explained that before the new budget is published next month, an extra £100m of savings needs to be found. Crucially, the DG indicated that this can’t come from “salami-slicing” existing budgets, suggesting that we should expect a whole aspect of BBC output to get the axe instead of further trimming across the board.

It was reported a fair bit in the last few days that this will come down to taking either BBC3 or BBC4 off the airwaves. Even the briefest glance down the figures reveals it’s the logical place to find lump sums to save. It therefore isn't that surprising that we are to expect an official annoucement tomorrow that BBC3 is to lose its on-air slot and go online-only.

Is that the right call, though? A quick canvass in the office revealed that people have widely divergent views about how the BBC should save money – everything from “sell off BBCs 1 and 2 and rent them back” to “get rid of Radios 1 and 6, fullstop”. I think it’s a bit more complicated that just “young people use the internet therefore the youth-orientated programming can just be online”. It’s about intent, too, and visibility – making young people feel like they’re an equally important part of the conversation, that they aren’t valued less.

If I’m honest, I don’t watch BBC Three very often. I liked Gavin and Stacey (the channel’s most notable breakthrough series), and I enjoy Him and Her and the odd Don’t Tell the Bride. But in general, I steer clear, feeling like BBC4 is more my thing. That said, I don’t think Four should get a free pass while Three is reduced to being iPlayer-only. To choose between them is to choose between two different demographics – neither is better or more worthy, they are just different. Originally, both were intended to supplement the terrestrial BBC offering for audiences that weren’t perhaps being catered for so much on One and Two. Young people haven’t vanished just because money is tighter now.

Some BBC3 programmes are awful (see: Snog, Marry, Avoid and documentaries presented by Stacey Dooley). But some have been brilliant – Being Human, In the Flesh, The Mighty Boosh, Torchwood and a whole host of others. At the same time, some BBC4 programmes are terrible (endless programmes where men discuss war) and others are great (anything with Lucy Worsley, say). Three and Four were a team. Together, they made space for new commissions that weren’t considered “safe” enough for the main channels.

Moving one online and leaving the other one on air makes no sense (not least from a numbering point of view). It would be better to do away with both, and pour some of the money and resources saved into braver, better new commissions for the rest of the BBC. There’s already a petition to save BBC3, and celebrities such as Matt Lucas (who owes a lot of his success to the channel) have come out in support of it. I very much doubt we’ve heard the last of this.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear