13 things you need to know about the TV licence (or maybe 130)

Posted in Media by Deputy city editor on November 18, 2008

Despite the widespread mistrust of the BBC by those who pay for it, the corporation enjoys strong political and media support . After an extravagant expansion during the epoch of Blair and Brown, the BBC licence fee is temporarily frozen and if the BBC is no longer the subject of universal admiration, it remains powerful and dangerous.  Reform of this self-obsessed monopolistic provider of so-called public broadcasting is long overdue. The establishment will, however, wish to maintain its control of this ideological enterprise. There are already huge numbers of reluctant licence fee payers and also many who outright refuse to pay. But given the interests of the deep British establishment versus the people paying the bills, the abolition of the licence fee, and the transformation of public broadcasting into a medium actually accountable to the public, seems to be still very distant. That the licence fee is the worst of all possible methods for funding public broadcasting seems to matter not a twitter.

Australians got rid of their TV licence by mass refusal  to pay – the Brits are a more obedient lot, it seems.

Polls (except those rigged by the BBC) pretty consistently show 60 per cent of the public annoyed that they are paying the fee.  After recent scandals, the BBC is now widely mistrusted and even hated for reasons that go well beyond its typically craven journalism (BBC political news), frequent populist vulgarity (countless examples), vast waste, stupid salaries, left-wing trade unions and generalised contempt for viewers. Then there is the corporation’s role running its own contracted force of investigators who launch 17% of all prosecutions in the nation’s magistrate’s courts. The defendants are mainly female and poor – single mums at home during the day when the inspectors call. These women are too polite/intimidated to shut the door on the BBC tax farmers and they are processed through the magistrates’ courts, in order that the chattering classes might enjoy Radio Four.

Despite creating a hideous relationship between the BBC and its viewers, the licence fee has enormous political support. Politicians like the BBC because they are drawn to TV cameras and the BBC has a lot of them. The BBC is conscientious mirroring the Westminster debate. Politicians set the annual rise in the licence fee and appoint the Trust that claims to represent the licence-payer. Nobody opposed to the licence has ever been appointed to the Trust.  The thought that there might be an alternative is never discussed in Parliament, or much mentioned in the media.

Even Murdoch likes the licence fee, for fear that a truly independent BBC, financed by subscriptions, could build a platform to rival his own BSkyB structural subscription broadcasting monopoly.

Then, there is a large public constituency of people who listen to e.g. The Archers, and firmly believe that everyone must contribute to their listening pleasure. Even magistrates like the BBC, which helps finances their house magazine and whose prosecutions provide much of the cash-flow the courts reap from fines. The BBC works hard to keep various interest groups on-side. There is even a legion of rinse-haired fogeys who promote the BBC while styling themselves the ‘voice’ of the viewer and listener. Needless to say, the ‘voice’ gets a BBC subvention.

The BBC has constructed a careful mythology of its own greatness. This, with its £3 billion in licence-fee cash, and a disproportionate share of electromagnetic spectrum, especially in the radio band, the BBC is an institution of influence without equal in Britain.  The licence fee keeps a lot of the chattering classes on the payroll – from Andrew Neil to Ian Hislop via Polly Toynbee. The BBC’s cheques are very useful when it comes to the upkeep on the Provençal (Neil) or Tuscan (Toynbee)  villa.

As of April 2010, the TV licence costs £145.50 and roughly 20 million households pay it. It is illegal to watch ANY television without a licence. The BBC claims this includes computers and games consoles. Where does the money go? Propping up the Groucho Club accounts for only a tiny share, notwithstanding the publicity given to the notorious millions paid in salaries to various celebrities. It is actully hard to say where all the money goes because the BBC’s acounts are a bit like Enron’s. There is known to be a £2 billion pension deficit. Presumably, the licence-fee payers will be asked to pay for this, too. Although there is no risk to the corporation’s top executives, whose pensions are among the richest ever known in the so-called public sector.

This is possibly a lesser black hole than the BBC’s exposure to risky property developments, which focus on the construction of palaces for itself. In addition to the rebuild of Broadcasting House at immense expense in London, whose cost-overrun is certainly not fully revealed by the BBC’s opaque accounts, the BBC,  at an even vaster expense, is currently decanting thousands of its dazed and confused worker ants to a new media city in Manchester.

They are leaving the capital with the grace of the san coulottes departing Paris. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the plight of the BBC apparachniks told they must live in the North of England. But the BBC sees this as a crucial step in the defence of the fee after 2013. As for the credit crunch – who knows?The BBC is  engaged in colossally expensive property developments Manchester, too, although the exposure of these is hard to divine.  Billions seem to be at stake. You can read more about BBC corruption here.

As the BBC knows, I have not had a TV licence for many years. It has even been several years since I have received one of their charmless letters.  For the moment they leave me alone. I think I am possibly on the list of political refuseniks. Do I have a TV? How might I use it?  I consider these questions none of the BBC’s business. I avoid their programmes. I find their relationship with the viewers to be obnoxious and their journalism to be mediocre, tendentious,  but mainly tedious, narrow and self-obsessed. Fighting this ministry of truth in the courts has been a mug’s game (see below). At the local level, they practically own the courts. But they have to be nervous. The BBC is a gigantic contradiction, very close to implosion.  I’d love to see their books. I reckon they are probably bankrupt. And they certainly will be if viewers stop sending them cheques.

Opting out of the TV tax is not as hard as it seems. There are probably a million hard-core resisters and the number appears to be growing. These people are a diverse group ranging from EU-phobes, to people who simply can pay and won’t because the programming is so miserable, as well as others who may ethically object to the ransoms paid to the BBC’s personalities.  Still others detest the patronising drone of its programmes, and then there are those (like me) who simply consider the BBC’s demands unlawful and  impertinent. There are lots of reasons to be a conscientious objector to a scheme that is the worst option on every level.  Can you really get away with not paying? The BBC spends heavily to make you think not. The truth is more subtle.

Those who simply ignore the BBC will, for the most part, get away with it. Even at the best, the BBC manages to proecute only a tiny percentage of evaders – and these are always those who are prepared to admit the crime!

If convicted, it’s not so terrible – maybe more a badge of honour. The fine (usually £150) is hardly more than the price of a licence  and is about as much a badge of shame as a parking ticket. But here’s the key point:  you’ll only get convicted  if you admit it.  The key tactic of resistance is to throw away all the mailed demands, ignore the pathetic threats,  and in the unlikely event that one of the BBC’s hired goons shows up at your doorstep, say absolutely nothing.  What about the detector van? Worry not (read on).

If you are new to BBC resistance, or simply considering overcoming your fears of getting done and joining one of the several announced boycotts, you’ll have plenty of questions. There’s a bit to know. For those new to this fray, I am pleased to present the ‘need to know’ points – 13 of them naturally, pace Proust, although revised and extended, due to the requirements of the material.

1. Know thine enemy. TV Licensing is not an entity or a registered company but a trademark owned by the BBC. The BBC does not wish to be directly associated with the collection of the TV licence so it contracts out the collection to the Capita group, which has a billion pound contract with the corporation. Capita employs a small army of tax farmers (styled TV licence “inspectors”) who visit those who can’t or won’t pay. Unless, of course, they are a high-profile refusenik. Needless to say, those willing to make admissions to these inspectors tend to be the weakest and most vulnerable. So  if you attend the BBC prosecutions at your local magistrates’ court, the people you’ll see prosecuted are single mothers.

2.TV detection is all a Big Lie. There is no evidence that the detector van really exists, other than as a photo-op van filled with scary-looking bits of electronics. The legality of warrentless electronic surveillance by the BBC has never been tested because no detector van evidence has ever been used in court. Privacy and proportionality are merely two of the reasons why it never will be.  The BBC relies for convictions on the admissions extracted on the doorstep by its army of monitors, who get a bonus for every prosecution they bring (though this is not disclosed to the court).

3. The prosecutions depend on confessions. If you do not confess, you will not get done. BBC/TVL prosecutes more than 150,000 people annually but even the BBC admits that a hard core of maybe a million households puts up a finger and get away with it. While most of those who get done are women and on benefits, most of those who don’t are the people the BBC’s inspectors don’t fancy tangling with. One of the highest rates of evasion is in Northern ireland. Wonder why? Only a handful are imprisoned after being unable or unwilling to pay the fine. Typically, the twin-setted, Archers-listening magistrates punish TV Licence evasion more harshly than they do assault. (Visit their courts – and weep.)  The cases are processed by rote and the BBC is represented by a prosecutor employed by Capita. Legal aid is not available. This is British Justice – uncut.

4. Intimidation is believed by the BBC to be the only effective tactic against people termed ‘evaders’ hence the expenditure of millions each year on threatening advertising campaigns claiming (falsely) “TV detector vans can quickly find you.” In one advertisement, a ‘license-cheat’ is seen swinging from the gallows at Tyburn as the mob cheer and spit at the corpse. This passes for humour. The BBC also advertises straightforwardly: ‘Get one or get done’ and promises to know where you live and whether you are licensed because of its all-knowing database. Is there any other organisation that treats its customers in such a manner? But of course these are not consumers in a traditional sense. They can send no meaniningful economic signal to the BBC, as they can to Murdoch, by cancelling Sky.  They are captive ratepayers –  victims, not viewers.  Many people think it is just and proper that those who not not appreciate the BBC, nevertheless must pay for it. They will not explain why if the BBC is loved and respected, it should not be the case that those who love and respect it can choose to pay for it.

5. No alternative to the licence fee has ever been seriously considered by the BBC or governments of either political stripe. With the consequence that the licence fee keeps the BBC entirely dependent on government, for money and governance. The BBC trust is headed by a Labour placeman. All members of the Trust are appointed by the government. The size of the fee and its periodic renewal are matters for the prime minister. The claim that the licence makes the BBC independent is a Big Lie. The BBC in return for the licence validates the British polity by mirroring the parliamentay debate, sucking up to those in power, over-promoting celebrities and above all, defending itself. Politicians of all parties rather like the idea of a broadcaster so firmly under the thumb of politicians, hence tend to defend the fee. Jeremy Hunt, the shadow media secretary, and my own MP, is utterly useless, having advocated only cosmetic changes, in order to perpetuate the fee.  Cameron is worse, slavering on like some demented Archers fan.  Just notice:  Nobody opposed to the licence fee is ever appointed to the Trust. Discussion of the fee itself is simply avoided. Debate is shut down. The BBC even pays a subvention to the Voice of the Listener! Never mind that  polls consistently show a growing majority of the population objects to the fee and that popular consent for it has vanished.

6. The fee is contradictory to the stated right in the European Convention on Human Rights (adapted  by the UK) to receive information without interference. It also arguably contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a meaningless document which the UK has also signed.) The collection of the licence fee, which is essentially a poll tax, uses disproportionate methods that invade personal privacy.  The taxation of television contradicts the television without frontiers directives by making it illegal to watch foreign satellite broadcasts without a permit. Profoundly illiberal, the BBC is entirely driven by the insane and self-defeating wish to retain the licence fee. In the BBC newsrooms are NUJ posters with the demand: “Defend the licence fee.” Now the BBC even wishes to extend the licence fee to networked computers.  TV licence fees are not an exclusively British problem, although we invented them. These so-called public broadcasters (really state broadcasters) are political playthings everywhere. Made absurd by an infinite digital media diversity that makes their entire rational absurd, they demand exemption from normal human rights laws to protect their licence fees. But there are plenty of reasons to challenge these fees nonetheless – with the proviso that it will take years and enrich only the lawyers. The much better way to sweep these fees away is a mass refusal to pay them. There is precedent for this.

7. So, with unlimited legal resources, the BBC can expose any litigant-challenger to enormous and continuing costs. Resisters and conscientious objectors have preferred to use defensive techniques – not exactly pouring boiling oil over the BBC’s inquiry agents, but not making incriminatory statements, either. This technique of passive resistance is highly effective. it involves ignoring all the threatening correspondence from invented people at the licence bureau; ensuring that TV sets cannot be seen or heard from the front door, and responding to any inquiry by men with clipboards with the words, “I cannot help you,” and closing the door. Some say you should write to them withdrawing their right of implied access even to approach your door. But simply ignoring them avoid entering into correspondence with these people, and the waste of a perfectly good stamp. The so-called inspectors for all of their blue fluorescent costumes have no right of entry and one is not obliged to even reveal one’s name to them (indeed it is strongly advised not to do so).  Those who employ this entirely legal stonewall tactic report that the BBC’s thugs (who have only rarely been known to physically assault recalcitrant television owners) invariably move on to lusher pastures (usually deprived areas and council estates, where single women are easily intimidated into signing the “witness statement” that the BBC’s inquiry agents will subsequently triumphantly produce in court, for the benefit of the credulous magistrates). This has been descrbed as the criminalisation of female poverty. The BBC is unabashed.

8. BBC prosecutions amount to 17 per cent of all the business conducted in the magistrates courts according to Sarah Lyall in the New York Times and those prosecuted are never fined the £1,000 threatened but usually £150 plus of course prosecution and court costs and also a special fee used to sustain the victim counselling scheme. It seems that much of the cost of the magistrates courts (when they are not hearing prosecutions for wheelie-bin violations)  is paid for by the aseembly-line of fines for TV licence evasion.  A court can raise several thousand pounds for a TVL docket – and they all do. Magistrates are kept ‘on side’ to TVL through a specific PR campaign aimed just at them. TVL advertises lavishly in the glossy magistrates’ magazine.  Magistrates are an odd lot. It is sad to see why people would seek this work. If you want to test the oxymoron “British justice” just drop in and see your local magistrates deal with TV licences in batches of 100 at a time.  Failure to buy a TV licence is a conviction that does not need to be disclosed on a US visa waiver!

9. The BBC will not allow serious or continued discussion of the licence fee on its own airwaves nor is there any evidence that the trustees or governors before them have ever seriously considered an alternative. Despite clear evidence that most of the BBC’s fee-payers would like to be offered an alternative, nobody advocating one has ever been appointed to the governors or trustees.  The House of Commons media select committee has never held a hearing on whether there should be a licence fee.  The commentariat defend it while never disclosing their own BBC earnings.

10. BBC/Guardian propaganda notwithstanding, Rupert Murdoch is the licence fee’s biggest fan. Although he knows perfectly well that the licence fee is a ridiculous, self-deafeating and unfair tax to the benefit of a competitor, it suits him that Sky is the only national subscription TV platform (cable is very regionalised), and it terrifies him that the BBC could produce a competitive terrestrial subscription platform, to compete with his electronic programme guide and conditional access monopoly. One might have thought the BBC would seize the  opportunity of subscrptions (Murdoch has proven it works) and liberate itself finally from a detested fee and a sordid relationship with its viewers. The BBC would have a chance to establish a  powerful and profitable platform business, by itself or in partnership with others, should they have introduced a free view box capable of conditional access. But Greg Dyke (who was against the licence fee before he was for it; he may now be against it again) boasted that the BBC sabotaged this idea at the Department of Media. Dyke and the BBC engineers ensured that a crippled box was offered to the public, with no possibility of conditional access. In other words: there was an a priori exclusion of even the possibility of subscription televisionin which viewers could make their own choices. What a fool he was. The BBC cut itself off from the future and boasted about it!  BBC manipulation of technical standards to inhibit competition is nothing new, of course, as the disaster of digital radio has reaffirmed.  (Dyke was sacked because proving doubly that he is a fool, he’d actually believed the BBC was independent and could challenge the government on the war in Iraq.)

11. Other than the uniquitous BBC services, public broadcasting meanwhile hardly exists in the UK (unless you count Big Brother) and there is no access or money or even frequencies for anyone who wants to compete with the BBC. The BBC has ahieved the status of a secular religion (maybe a little like the NHS) where it has successfully confused its own identity with something the public understands to be desirable. Unfortunately, the BBC has long been an obstacle to a diverse public broadcasting culture in the UK, through its monopoly of the funds not to mention its monopoly of the frequency spectrum (half the VHF band) (and obstruction of competition).

12. The BBC tells us frequently that it is a beloved British institution – so why is it so terrified of asking viewers and listeners to pay voluntarily, like every other media company? Murdoch has persuaded almost 10m people to pay for Sky. Could not the BBC do at least as well offering subscriptions. If the argument is universality, there is nothing to stop them giving away some of their programs. Or they take a few ads (which the BBC already does – in America.) The BBC has never explained why it needs to be so big, so imperial, so obsessed with itself – or even for that matter why it publishes Hello magazine in India.  Why shouldn’t we have real public broadcasting, accountable to the public?

13. The BBC was the model for the Ministry of Truth in 1984 and in 2008 it really has become a Big Auntie but with a vicious temper and gutter tastes. They claim to be loved, but don’t trust that their output is saleable.  In Australia, public revulsion with the ABC led to a boycott of the licence fee, which politicians were forced to repeal. Subsequently, ABC seems neither much better nor worse, although the media choices available to all have expoloded, with the Internet and digital wireless, satellite and cable.  When will the British say enough and refuse en masse to pay? It would probably not take much to make the entire licence fee edifice crumble. If the BBC wants to become part of a diverse public broadcasting sector, good luck to them. But the argument for the licence fee is a tissue of lies, wrapped in hypocrisy.  But will anything change? You gotta ask yourself the question: are the British willing to stand up to the bullying BBC, or when the Inspector calls, will they revert to the customary reflexive cringe?

Tagged with: ,