Posh and Monica proved it: confessional TV is made for women. It's not that we sin less, we just repent better

The BBC's new digital TV channel, BBC4 - "everybody needs a place to think" - has so far not proved to be the place you go to watch. After its launch at the beginning of this month, some programmes held as few as 3,000 viewers. Critics have been quick to point out (albeit from the commercial wing of the industry), that it would have been cheaper to send them all a video.

To be fair, 30,000 tuned in on Sunday night for Goya and a million for the simulcast with BBC2 on launch night. But that was still not enough to beat Channel 5.

I would caution against early judgement. Unlike its commercial rivals, the BBC has time and (our) money, almost £35m a year of it, to allow the station to develop, and there is little doubt within the corporation that Greg Dyke is committed to the project. But could there be something more strategic going on inside the nation's great auntie?

One would hope so.

The licence fee is not sustainable in the long term. Either a Conservative government - yes, one day that will happen - or the general public will eventually put an end to it. With the proliferation of cable and satellite stations, viewers will baulk at having both "pay TV" and "must-pay TV".

The licence fee amounts to a hefty taxpayer subsidy to protect "our" culture, whatever that is. This argument is about as appealing to the great and increasingly discerning British public as a hypothecated tax for Bovril, or the royal family.

The BBC must have a Plan B. Dyke is nothing if not commercial. He has done well putting bums on sofas for BBC1 and improving listener figures for the radio arm of the corporation. Maybe his long-term strategy is to build up a popular BBC1, ring-fence culture into BBC2 and BBC4, eventually sell off the first channel and make the last a gift to the nation? Could BBC4 in fact be nothing more than a Trojan horse to conceal Plan B - the eventual privatisation of the corporation?

If ever we doubted the power of the media, it was on full and diverse display recently. Rachel Whitear's parents, as they toured the television studios from dawn to dusk, say they are staggered by the amount of attention that the pictures of their heroin addict daughter have received. They believe the coverage given to their daughter's death will save the life of someone else's daughter or son.

No sooner had the ink hit the front page of the Sunday Telegraph than ministerial phones were ringing to reverse the decision by an NHS hospital to deny five-year-old Catherine Sharpe a life-saving operation in Birmingham. The picture of this lovely child stared out next to the headline: "Girl's life-saving surgery cancelled to save money". The media's interest arguably saved a life.

And then there are some who just want to save their reputations. Enter Victoria Beckham on ITV and Monica Lewinsky on Channel 4. Both women were brilliant in their own very different ways at playing the wronged woman - Victoria defending herself against people who think she is a fashion-obsessed, money-crazed manipulator; and Monica defending herself from those who think she is an oral-obsessed, fame-crazed manipulator. After more than an hour with each of them, I had changed my mind.

Women are good at getting the sympathy vote. For some reason, it is difficult to empathise with men when they seek forgiveness or understanding on the box. Prince Charles, Michael Barrymore, Peter Mandelson were all television disasters when they pleaded their case before the massed millions.

Confessional TV is a woman's world - it's not that we sin less, we just repent better.

The explanation from Downing Street as to Tony Blair's new sartorial elegance paraded down under was that he is buying and wearing British to promote our fashion industry - and the underlying message was that he was dressing down for the convicts. Would someone please remind the Prime Minister that he already has a job? Promoting fashion is a task best performed by people without jobs, most memorably Diana, Princess of Wales.

As for pleasing the peasants, with Tony dressed in that grey pinstriped Paul Smith suit with matching fluorescent pink shirt and tie, most Aussies thought that the PM had got lost on his way to the Sydney gay Mardi Gras.

Once again, Fergie proves she is more royal than the royal family - she has taken sponging to an art form, lives with her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, in a mansion paid for by Mummy (which ultimately means subsidised by us) and lives off her royal connections. Never shy of a disingenuous headline, her latest attempt to earn an honest buck is in the selling of the most recent instalment of her diet saga - "How I lost 22lb and dropped to a model size 10". Sound familiar?

And what's more, it's so easy - all you have to do is be happy. Yes, that's it, folks, be happy and you'll be a size 10 - and then you'll be happy because you're a size 10, etc, etc, ad nauseam. (Which is not to be confused with nausea. There's no vomiting involved this time.)

Oh, and don't forget to get up every day at 5am and exercise for 45 minutes, the three yoga and one Pilates sessions a week, the personal trainer, the - "you hardly notice it's a diet" - diet of no bread, pasta, wheat, dairy products, sugar, red meat . . .

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.