Category Archives: Politics

TV Licensing – fear and intimidation work best

In the U.K., anyone who watches TV must pay a state tax for the privilege. Specifically:

“if you watch or record television programmes as they’re being shown on TV you must, by law, be covered by a TV Licence, no matter what device you’re using.” (from the TV Licensing website).

And no matter what content you’re watching. It doesn’t matter if you already pay £100/month for fancy satellite programming, or if you only watch commercially-sponsored networks. Everyone must pay £145/year (or, if you have a black & white set, £49/year). Senior citizens are sometimes exempt. Blind people can sign up for half-price (but deaf people still pay sticker). In 2009 this tax pulled in £3.49 billion, all of which went to the BBC.

For Americans, imagine that PBS not only required an annual subscription, but that it forced everyone to pay that subscription, even viewers who only ever watch ABC or CNN. Admittedly, the BBC holds a much larger market share in the UK than PBS does in the States. But it’s still very possible for viewers to never watch BBC content, especially in this modern age of globally-disseminated programming. So why does this tax exist? Past-precedent and a reluctance to reform. Taxation of broadcast media has existed in the U.K. since the British Broadcasting Corporation first began airing radio programming in 1922 (the fee back then was 10 shillings/year). The TV License was introduced in 1946 when postwar television broadcasting resumed. Back then the BBC was all you could tune into. There was one channel and the fee was £2/year. Even as private television programming expanded, the BBC was able to keep a tight grip on the licensing fee. Today, 15 channels each have a viewing share of ≥ 1% of the viewing public. Together they account for 68% of the total viewing share. Only 4 of these 15 channels are funded by the licensing fee. If you’re interested in this, there’s a good wikipedia page dedicated to the topic.

The role of the licensing fee is a debate for another time (I think it it sorely outdated and a misuse of taxation). This post is about HOW the BBC collects the fee. As you might imagine, almost every U.K. household should technically to pay this fee, and enforcement has been an ongoing issue. The fee is classified as a tax, making failure to pay a criminal offense. But how to catch these criminals? The BBC created a subsidiary, the TV Licensing Authority, to manage compliance and hunt down evaders. Their methods are Draconian. Check out this commercial:

That’s from circa 2007. Did you notice the helicopter blades, police sirens, and “knock-knock-knock” at the end of the commercial? That’s the universally-recognized knocking of the license inspector. It’s meant to send chills down your spine. There was a whole series of commercials and print ads with this theme. What’s worse is that they assume, without evidence, that any property not registered with a license must be an evader. One fed up Brit decided to stop paying his tax (legally, he also stopped watching broadcast TV), and has documented the 5 years worth of threatening letters he has received ever since. I’ve received some of these letters myself. In fact, the very first piece of mail I received to my U.K. university address was from TV Licensing. It read:

WARNING: This property is unlicensed. We’re writing to inform you that we have authorized Enforcement Officers to visit your home. If they find evidence that you are watching TV illegally, they can take your statement under caution in accordance with the relevant criminal law. … The maximum penalty is a fine of £1,000. We take this offense extremely seriously, and catch around 1,000 evaders every day. … We strongly advise that you act to stop our investigation by buying a TV License.

It’s all smoke and mirrors. These “Enforcement Officers” are private contractors with no legal rights to search your property. Those who hold out (and many do, based on principle or a desire to save some ££), rarely actually go to court. The TV Licensing Agency relies on fear to maintain compliance. In the 1960s they started driving around in “TV detector vans.” These vehicles had big rotating ariels on them and, purportedly, could identify television (even channel) usage within properties. I can’t resist this next video, an ad from the ’70s:

Public debate over the reality of these vans is intense. For its part, the TV Licensing Authority remains tightlipped. In a Freedom of Information request from 2008 the Authority refused to divulge the technology behind these vans, instead admitting that it “relies on the public perception that the vans could be used at any time to catch evaders.” It’s generally accepted that while these vans may have worked in the 1960s, the proliferation of electromagnetic-radiating home appliances today makes this a useless tactic. Still, public perception is everything. Fear, intimidation and shame can work wonders. Look at this neighborhood billboard:

I’m tempted to say that advertising this sort of information should be illegal. Legality aside, the mere existence of this big brother campaign is ridiculous, and really shows how bad the controlling tendencies of a government can get when unchecked. We’re not talking about the evasion of military conscription, disease vaccination or even car insurance. This is a tax on watching television. Consider this: the Daily Mail claims that at times there have been more women in jail for TV License fine defaulting than for burglary or prostitution. Instead of literally scaring citizens into paying this fee, Parliament should wake up and realize that a tv tax no longer makes sense. British advertising and compliance tactics have always been hardline, but public backlash to this tax and its enforcement techniques is growing for a good reason. As funny as the TV License Authority’s tactics are, they’re also scary. Reassuringly, recent advertising has done away with the fear-mongering and instead relies on the next best thing: a catchy jingle. I wonder how effective this latest ad campaign has been compared to the last one:

“Push a Little Button” is a long way from “It’s All in the Database.” There’s tons of stuff about this online. This is a good summary of enforcement techniques, and this is an encyclopedic resource for personal accounts, media articles, government links and official reports.


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