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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.