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The BBC is in a financial bind. Since the election in 2010, the licence fee has been frozen (effectively cut) and both Welsh network Sianel 4 Cymru and the World Service has been brought under its funding responsibilities. Less money, stretched so far, means serious consequences. We almost lost 6Music, and they’ve only gone and axed Something For The Weekend.

Critics of the Beeb always trot out the line “What about showing adverts or go subscription?”, the former of which is now to become a reality. If all goes to plan, the BBC is to broadcast adverts on BBC World Service programmes for the first time.

Auntie’s neutrality means last night’s coverage of this news was as measured as it could be. The phrase “thin end of the wedge” was used only in quotation. There’s probably plenty within the Corporation who think exactly that. Adverts on the BBC? Well, there’s a path now taken and there’s the destination and doesn’t it look NICE? All warm and fluffy and neon lit with advertising types raising their glasses and beckoning us all inside.

The World Service is the most iconic of all the networks prefixed with the letters ‘BBC’. Its legacy is stunning – getting news to places where it was otherwise filtered through genuinely bias sources, if indeed the news ever got to people at all. Famously, Mikhail Gorbachev heard of the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union through the Russian language World Service broadcasts.

The BBC is required to source £3m funding from commercial activities by 2014. Adverts can only be the start – and pessimists are meeting with realists to paint what that must mean for the television channels we take pretty much for granted today. Unlike its other radio networks, the World Service is not merely news and opinion; for millions of people, it’s the voice of reason, neutrality and wisdom they are denied at home. It is often the only credible news source they can access all day. Adverts may be necessary because of the new funding rules – but the consequences can only be damaging. The inclusion of commercial messages between BBC programming was always the ‘scare story’ used to shore up support for the licence fee; the scare story is now coming true.

If you’re angry about the inclusion of adverts on the World Service (which isn’t funded by the licence fee, or at least not yet), step away from the Daily Mail website. Its commentators have rubbed themselves to an awkward, disappointing orgasm over this story – “The arrogance of the Bunch of Boring Creeps….” groans one. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s tired of paying for left wing biased programming I neither watch or agree with.” faps another. “It’s about time these Socialist parasites funded their own programming.” tugs away one more.  Good old Daily Mail – for whom ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ should be a secondary by-line. Wait until it /has/ gone, DM faithful, you’ll be left with Channel 4 and product placement during the Archers (now broadcast on Virgin Nostalgia).

The “thin end of the wedge” will weaken, compromise and ultimately kill off most of what makes the BBC World Service so important and crucial as a provider of news. Successful adverts will promote the Government to force the Beeb to add commercials onto national television; and with it goes the licence fee and ultimately everything commercial companies would not dare risk paying for. Goodbye to BBC Four, 6Music, the archives of plays and interviews and live music. The World Service was a beacon – it should not be allowed to transform into a billboard.

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Threedom

One of the greatest crime dramas you’ve never watched has returned to the iPlayer, capitalising on the soon to be launched second series. Amongst other programmes in the schedule around it are travelogues from Orkney, dead-pan comedy Nurse Jackie, the Proms, and an edition of Top of the Pops from 1976, featuring Thin Lizzy. Earlier this year, the channel dedicated almost an entire month to broadcasting subtitled comedy-drama from Iceland. Tomorrow, the story of Italian-language crime fiction and on Wednesday a look at submarines in cinema history. The crime drama, incidentally, is Denmark’s The Killing, famous for the chunky-knit Faroese jumpers worn by lead star Sarah Lund.

All this, and as they say, so much more, is found on the BBC digital channel, BBC Four. Paid for through the licence fee, it’s remit is as much souped-up BBC Two as it is SKY Arts, the Sunday Times, and BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends. If you’re worried that watching a decent enough documentary on BBC Two could put you within channel-hopping distance of Jeremy Clarkson, then this is the network for you.

Or at least it might be the channel for you, for now. With the safeguarded 6Music clusterfruitcake still leaving a bitter taste in their collective mouths, the suits at Auntie Beeb are diving back onto the buffet trolly. Facts are facts, after all, and the fact is the BBC needs to find cost cuttings. And find them fast – the licence fee is guaranteed for six years, though frozen, and that all adds up to a reduction in real terms. Easy targets could cause the usual suspects to start biting, hard, and not just particularly sharp of tooth around the whole argument of the Corporation’s funding. Big ticket sporting events, bigger ticket celebrity pay packets and phenomenally successful though populist prime-time entertainment shows are all easy targets for the BBC’s enemies – if the network is to compete in multi-channel Britain without an ever increasing revenue stream, those enemies require rapid and effective placating.

Over on BBC Four, the cuts are already showing. Original dramas will be shrunk in number, and mostly shoved across to BBC Two. Non-English imports will struggle to survive at all. Bought-in documentaries will doubtlessly increase. Live music reduced to “Radio 3 with pictures”, twice the work for presenters, less outlay for producers.

The argument from within the Corporation itself is tricky to reconcile with the long held assumption that Auntie doesn’t do ratings wars. “It’s your BBC!”, Terry Wogan would recall in a mocking voice, turning the once often heard slogan into a punchline, often when another multi-million pound splurge is outed by the newspapers. This year, the BBC announced that their youth-orientated channel BBC Three would be given greater broadcasting hours, and the money to go with it, for the temporary transformation into BBC Olympics. Further, the channel would continue to enjoy greater amount of investment for new talent – so whilst “The Thick of It” and “Getting On” did very well for Four, it will be more “Two Pints of Lager” and “The King is Dead” for your licence fee pounds from next year.

Selling the BBC Three “youth” angle is easy for the buzz word compendiums which walk around Television Centre these days. Defending “60 Second News”, the producers underline the traditional journalistic approach to slashing the events of the day into haiku. The great quote – for all the wrong reasons – is “so much TV news assumes knowledge on the viewer’s part”, but that is not how BBC Three works.”

In the light of the riots in London and elsewhere, such forthcoming arguments as “Three verses Four” becomes somewhat harder to balance. In short, the BBC does a great service in providing Three, recognising that BBC One will always be more stable, family orientated, more mainstream. BBC Three has helped young writers and actors, given coverage to womens football and wheelchair ballrooom dancing (no, really) and ensures that fans of “Family Guy” and “American Dad” don’t have to sit through “Newsnight” for one episode each, every week, in the graveyard slots on BBC Two.

It’s the channel which people love to hate, usually for reasons of thinly veiled condescension. How unfortunate that well meaning critics could be hitting the network at the wrong time. “Down with what the youth want!” cry the establishment, newspaper columnists, the middle-class Twitter hive mind. “It’s all just too vulgar”

Looked at from afar, it does appear the BBC Three formula of “shock, awe, and celebrity” sets itself apart from its broadsheet near-neighbour and all of the other BBC output. It’s not too much to say “It’s not exactly SKY One, is it?”. On Monday, BBC Three gave you the option to watch a ‘make under’ programme with a Lady Gaga lookalike, followed by reruns of “Eastenders” and “Little Britain”. On Wednesday there was a ‘secret wedding’ reality show and the film “Sliding Doors”. Tomorrow, an episode of “Total Wipeout” and a rerun of “EastEnders”.

But, wait. Go back a few days to “Young, Dumb, and Living Off Mum”, in which spoiled teenagers are filmed cleaning youth hostels for minimum wage, as part of a “life lesson reality show”. Tomorrow, Cherry Healey (no, me neither, the name sounds like a brand of ice cream), investigates body-image issues amongst young women. On the 24th, there’s “Good Will Hunting”. Not exactly “The Hangover II”.

Despite its brash logo and ‘street’ outer-skin, the depth of BBC Three saves itself the bother of arguing back against the broad-brush side swipes. Yes, it is very different from other BBC output, and of course BBC Four is far closer to the Reithian manifesto. If there was only one to save, I’d choose Four, and not just because of the occasional chance to revisit “Wallander”. I am older than the BBC Three target audience, but can still see that many of its exploitation programming is not exactly doing the Beeb much of a favour. Could you see why there’s not a 24-hour “T4 Channel”? It just wouldn’t stretch that far.

BBC Four causes Auntie a headache because of its cost and audience viewing figures. Generally, stripped of the Proms and “The Killing”, Four costs more money to run, and attracts far fewer regular, loyal viewers. BBC Three is cheap, popular, and serves a part of the population well who have spent months slogan shouting (and rock throwing, shop looting) against the various establishment icons. The potential for BBC Four is huge – though what the BBC could do with Three at a time when the Government aren’t exactly striking a confident pose in front of youth unrest is the opportunity to educate, entertain, and inform, Generation Internet.

Standing up for the very best of the BBC is easy. I’m a supporter of the licence fee, I watch far more BBC Four than any other channel, and I do struggle to justify the output of Three if pressed to look at its entire schedule over any given month. However, from a neutral point of view, it seems obvious why the cost-cutting is looking at taking money away from Four; the danger of perception has always shaken the suits at Television Centre. “Beeb Throws Your Licence Fee Into Subtitled Nonsense!” at a time when your teenage target audience feel alienated and ignored? If the BBC can balance the books, and in conjunction with all their executives, take an average viewer to and from BBC Four in small doses, then the possibilities could all turn out okay. It cannot be easy – the Beeb may save Four and face accusations of snobbery and detachment, or save Three and be slammed for dumbing down. The struggle at the heart is snobbery – is it somehow prejudiced against the core audience of Three to suggest they need more history, drama, and subtitled films?

In November 2009, the danger at the time was from a Conservative Party hinting that the licence fee could be “top sliced”. Back then, my suggestion was to go for BBC Three for the obvious cost-saving options. Context is all – to choose one over the other will damage the Beeb and alienate millions of viewers. I would prefer the investment needed for BBC Olympic be transferred into more Sarah Lund and 70s prog rock….but perhaps that point of view is precisely the problem.

We’re all in this forever

James Bond and Victoria Coren make gambling look sexy. George Osborne has spun the Roulette Wheel with all the allure of knitting phlegm. His Spending Review was sprinkled with good news, in the same way a paper-cut finger wafted around a bit splatters blood on the walls.

(There will be blood on the carpet following the SR. If any LibDems are pushed into on-coming traffic there is still a chance Charles Kennendy could be called upon to top-up Osborne’s water with Islay Malt. Or cyanide).

Such is the breadth and depth of the SR that the reaction has seems breathless and confused. The BBC having its life effectively guaranteed for 6 years is news nevertheless greeted with utter incredulity. “Save The BBC!” doesn’t sound quite so logical when the review has done just that. Over the six years, a freeze is as good as a cut, so expect Match of the Day 2014 to feature unrivalled coverage of the Zamaretto Midlands League.** But still they shout it, like football fans cheering for a player they hadn’t noticed substituted (which, incidentally, reminds me of a recent Burscough game which involved a young fella continually cheering a player who wasn’t even on the bench. Oh how we laughed…).

Much as been made of the (pre-announced) proposal to remove child benefit from higher wage earners. Cue the most bizarre through-the-looking-glass political arguments in modern times. “The lowest earners in society should not fund the child benefit of the well off!” cries David Cameron. “The most well off are entitled to handouts no matter how middle class they are!” bellows Ed Miliband. If Gordon Brown’s removal of the 10p tax rate made you question the known-knowns of British politics, welcome to Kafka Plus…

The SR was neither rape upon the nation or reasoned treatment for an ill patient; the truth lies somewhere in the muddle. Over 100 pages of mindgasm explain each Department’s budget in terms Sir Humph could not disagree with. Everything is covered; from a new suspension bridge over the Mersey to a Universal Benefit (one handout to unite us, etc. and so forth). In truth, of course, no politician truly denies the scale of the problem faced by the Chancellor; the nation is in mammoth debt, and so are its people.

The Osborne Agenda is pithily labelled “ideological” by critics who, on the whole, are exactly as ideological. Union leaders dust off their placards, Labour members fill up with nostalgia for childhood lost in demonstrations and marches. Thought ideological divides in politics were dead? Welcome to the most significant divide between sides since the introduction of the Community Charge.

The review comes at the very end of what could be called “the age of entitlement”. With a benign economy, low interest rates and banks throwing mortgages and credit cards around like samples at a supermarket, it is little wonder so many millions of people took advantage. I certainly did, maxing out the credit card on long weekends and (most shamefully of all, perhaps) Domino’s pizza. But years of 100% mortgages, holidays and flatscreen televisions did not build the debt mountain bequeathed by Labour; the two tales of national and personal debt run parallel, and one is disguised as an elephant. The demise of Woolworths, near demise of Wedgewood, epic scales of economic catastrophe across all the professional football leagues; they too wore the elephant suits. There are only so many ‘known knowns’ we dare acknowledge, no?

The review touches us all. With such drastic cuts in local council funding – council tax frozen for at least one year, though not necessarily across the country I suspect, notice the Sir Humph lexicon in the Report – every library, swimming pool and elderly care centre will suffer from the sharp pencil. Councils may learn from this sharp slap across the buttocks, scrapping the ‘non jobs’ which soak up so much money. “Audience development officer” for £30 grand a year? £19,000 a year is a decent enough wage for anyone – but for a “street football co-ordinator”? Does it sound patronising to draw attention to these jobs, or instructive? Is this another trip through the looking glass? When the Daily Mail covered the “non-job” story, a council spokesperson explained that money was spent on “everything from lollipop ladies to librarians”. Good, how it should be, and unfortunately such roles may be curtailed by the council funding slash-and-burn. There is something rotten with the system if – and, alas, I am not making this up – “teeth cleansing instructors” are on the Town Hall payroll.

Within the lifetime of this fixed-term parliament – if we ever get there – the Spending Review will soak into our wallets, our skin, get under our hair, interrupt our phonecalls with a high-pitched noise like a cat being tickled by an ovengloved hand. The size, depth and generosity of the welfare state must be tackled. Ditto the inexorable pouring of Government borrowing. And the size, nature and behaviour of our police force in their ‘war with fear’ must be altered. In short, the Coalition are tasked with achieving reform through force; it doesn’t make me feel easy or comfortable, but neither do Northern Rail’s damp and frosty Pacers and I have to put up with them too….

**You thought it didn’t exist, eh?

Nationalisation won’t get us back on track.

£1.8bn is the most recent figure for central Government spending on the railways. With the next Conservative government likely to have this as the very maximum they’d be willing to spend – and even that is a stretch – the future has not been this bleak for Britain’s rail infrastructure for generations.

In Scotland, the link to Glasgow Airport has been sacrificed by the SNP administration attempting to balance its books; Manchester’s Metrolink extension to its Airport is likely to be mothballed too. London’s Crossrail is a reality likely to remain, not least because of the Olympic Games in 2012, with the rest of the nation sitting on so many promises and long-ago given up dreams of being linked to the rail network.

I am not against long-term projects such as the High Speed project linking the North of England with London so quickly office workers could commute on a daily basis without losing sleep. Nor am I naive enough to demand massive expansion without consequence, although how many people must realise that the Beeching Axe did for economic and environmental policy long before many of today’s MPs were born? How different this country would be – how closer to our climate change ambitions – had the crisscross of railway lines slaughtered by Beeching allowed to remain.

Nationalisation is not the answer to our railway woes. Those on the Left who demand the return to public ownership are blinded by ideology. Some private companies may have bailed out – Connex, National Express – but the expansion of the network which has occurred, improvements to stations which has happened, the vast improvement in punctuality across all regions, would be unthinkable and grossly over-costed in the hands of Government. I do not want to return to slow, shoddy, slam-door British Rail trains, even though my daily commute often means 1980s Merseyrail brain-shakers into Bamber Bridge. Northern Rail is showing far more ambition than Regional Railways ever did.

The £1bn kitty for railways after 2010 will not be used with much abandon. It will have to be centred on what will be guaranteed to return the best value. But the railways are showing all the signs of short-term politics from both Labour and Conservative governments. Neither saw beyond each election day in terms of ambition for the rail network. More stations, more lines – all needed for the long-term good in addition to such massive projects as “High Speed II”.

We show the scars on our little island of our reliance on road expansion at the expense of railway funding. The future should have started years ago on making the trains run on time. From 2010 the question of railway investment may be too important to avoid.