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 web editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.