Never mind saving BBC3. The BBC itself is in danger

The first loss of a broadcast TV channel could be the beginning of the end for the Beeb, says Jack Seale

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Never mind saving BBC3. The BBC itself is in danger
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It's a little more than a week since BBC director-general Tony Hall made the surprise announcement that BBC3 is to cease traditional, over-the-air broadcasting in autumn 2015. The chatter has died down. But it's something we need to keep talking about. The more you think about it, the wronger closing BBC3 seems and the more it feels like the start of the end for the BBC.

Be in no doubt that this is a closure, not a re-imagining. BBC3 is moving to iPlayer, but with £50m of its content budget, ie more than half, cut. Online-only might be the future, but it's still the fairly distant future, even for a broadcaster that was miles ahead of the pack when it launched iPlayer itself. Director of TV Danny Cohen admitted on Tuesday that it wouldn't naturally have happened for another three or four years.

In the longer term the Beeb is swallowing a time-bomb, risking alienating young adults who have no other connection to it. "Something was different this time," wrote film-maker Ben Ferguson of his experience making BBC3's excellent Growing Up Poor, having previously done similar projects for the Guardian. "The BBC3 brand was a familiar entity... the channel that speaks to young people was already trusted by young people, who felt it represented them."

BBC3 is hugely successful. It's cheaper per viewer hour than BBC4, scores higher on audience appreciation than BBC1, reaches nearly a quarter of the population, is the biggest channel for 16- to 34-year-olds after 10pm, and has more Baftas than its budget gives it any right to. It plays a crucial role acting as a proving ground for new BBC comedy. There's a steady stream of superb documentaries: last month, Reggie Yates's Extreme South Africa. Next week, Life and Death Row. The week after that, Kris: Dying to Live. Nobody else makes anything similar.

Critics of BBC3 love to dismiss half its programming as "dross", but BBC2 and particularly BBC1 have hours of empty entertainment that's no more edifying than Hair or Sweat the Small Stuff. It's just dross that's aimed at older people, and those people dominate the debate about the BBC.

Sweat the Small Stuff

Cutting BBC3 off at the knees is a disaster. I'd argue it's less deserving of cuts than BBC1, BBC2 or BBC4, but chopping them up instead would be awful too. So here's the solution: don't cut any of them.

What's been missed surprisingly often in the debate about whether Tony Hall is right to pull the plug on BBC3 is that the decision only arises because the BBC had a whacking 16% of its real-terms budget taken from it by the government in the 2010 licence fee settlement.

If you're angry about BBC3 going, that rage shouldn't be directed primarily at Hall, but at the previous regime that agreed to the deal, and at a government fundamentally opposed to the sort of collectively funded public service that is the BBC in its current, mindblowingly successful and culturally invaluable form; an institution that, as the perfectly true cliche goes, is the envy of the rest of the world. (There was a dark irony in Hall announcing the end of BBC3 in the same week that £1.2bn in NHS contracts were put out to tender. But the NHS has a robust band of protesters, and even a bespoke new political party, fighting to save it. One day soon the BBC might need something similar.)

Accepting that these are austere times and the BBC has to make big cuts means losing the argument straight away. Here probably isn't the place to list all the things Britain apparently does still have money to spend on. Suffice to say that even if you ignore the huge cultural benefit of a strong public service broadcaster, the economic case for cuts doesn't hold. The BBC, like other creative endeavours that are first in the firing line when recession bites, massively boosts the economy. The attack on it is ideological.

There was amazingly little hoo-hah after the 2010 settlement. And in the past week, the entire debate about BBC3 has proceeded on the basis that the modern, sprawling, post-iPlayer Beeb is essentially unsustainable, an outdated luxury that has to feel the pinch. Nonsense. Now is the time, the last chance perhaps, to make up that lost ground and be heard.

Incidentally, politicians with aspirations and commercial media organisations who are obliged to trash their rivals are one thing. But how dismaying, how tiresome are the ordinary punters who aren't getting paid, but still join in with the bizarre idea that the licence fee is a terrible injustice? For less than three quid a week you get a bewilderingly brilliant array of TV programmes, with an equally incredible radio offering. The kids' channels are amazing. The documentaries are the best in the world, by a long way. Heck, it would almost be value for money if BBC3 were the only channel offered. So paying a compulsory charge is a dreadful, North Korea-style imposition on your personal freedoms, is it? Diddums. That's part of the deal, the exact reason why the BBC's not just the best, but better than all the others combined. It's almost comically well worth it.

Anyway. Make no mistake: the end of the BBC is creeping up the agenda. Two worrying news stories have emerged since Tony Hall's statement. One was the front-page lead in the Sunday Times, gleefully reporting that a study in which the BBC asked a panel of august outsiders what it should do – never underestimate the Beeb's propensity to voluntarily drop its kecks and beg for a thrashing – threw up the suggestion that the licence fee be abandoned and replaced by an opt-in subscription model. The BBC pooh-poohed the report, saying that it's likely to push instead for a return to inflation-linked licence fee rises. This would be too little, too late.

More perturbing was a communication on Saturday from the office of culture secretary Maria Miller, wondering aloud whether it might be a good idea to decriminalise licence fee evasion and make it a civil offence instead. "Having decriminalisation on the table during the [charter renewal] negotiations will focus the BBC's minds," said Miller's spokesperson, sounding like a gangster toying with a blade.

Charter renewal – that's the thing where the very existence of the BBC, not just the size of the licence fee, is on the table – was supposed to take place in 2016, but the government is working to move it forward to before the general election in 2015. If you'd like to make a written or oral deposition about it to the relevant parliamentary Select Committee, whose report begins the process in earnest, bad luck. All that's already happened.

Some say the proposed closure of BBC3 is Hall's way of confronting those who ask endlessly for the Corporation to slim down, by finally saying: look, little trims here and there won't save the amount of money you want us to find. We're going to have to shut a whole TV channel. Happy now?

If that is Hall's gamble, it's a dangerous one. It seems designed as a sop to the BBC's enemies in the media, who churn out anti-Beeb stories at every available opportunity and found an easy target in BBC3 shows called F*** You, My Lesbian Stepfather Is Fat or whatever. They will indeed be happy if BBC3 closes. But then they'll just move on to something else. Will they be grateful that some of the BBC3 budget has gone to making yet more BBC1 dramas, which might include something nice and sensible with midwives or corsets? No.

For people sympathetic to the Beeb, closing BBC3 sets a trap. It's easy for those outside its target demographic to think, well, I didn't watch it anyway. But if you tolerate this, your favourite shows will be next. BBC4? It can go, all that should be on BBC2 anyway. (Danny Cohen admitted this week that BBC4 is not safe as a result of BBC3's emasculation.) Radio 1? There are commercial channels for that. Radio 3? An elite luxury. Wimbledon, the Olympics, the World Cup? Let Sky have them. The BBC as a whole? Well, it's not the same any more since they closed bits of it, is it?

So what's to be done? The obvious first step is to join the campaign for BBC3 to be saved. It worked for 6 Music and the Asian Network. Will the BBC Trust overturn another major closure? It seems unlikely, since the proposition there was to completely close those stations on the grounds that nobody wanted them, a claim that was comprehensively disproven. The fudge of moving some of BBC3 online makes the case harder to prove, and the sheer amount of money involved would make a reversal a much bigger and bolder decision.

That is no reason not to try. A large enough swell of opinion will force the BBC Trust, which is obliged to represent licence-payers, to stop and think. The Trust doesn't actually start public consultation on BBC3's future until September, but the debate about the BBC itself is happening now, and with the Beeb unwilling or unable to defend itself robustly, the other side have the initiative. We need to take it back.