The British Broadcasting Corporation
The Licence and Civil Liberties
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold
opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
For the BBC speech is not free when it takes the form of TV broadcasts. Watching TV requires its permission and an annual payment of £147. This gives it nearly £4bn a year to spend as it likes.
Not only does the corporation disdain to offer its goods to be bought or rejected according to individual wishes. It gets its money with methods that no private business or state agency would dare use.
Those who do not have a licence, even those who own no TV or television recording device, can expect close attention from the media giant. After a number of threatening letters its agents will visit. They will demand to search without a warrant if the property owner says she does not have a TV. (Here's a public admission of that from former head licence enforcer David Legge, a man without a basic understanding of civil rights). And they will try to “interview under caution” those they suspect of watching TV without permission (a police term equivalent to the American “reading your rights”). It even carries out covert operations under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. But as the BBC told the Financial Times, this "is only used as a last resort once other enforcement methods have been exhausted".
“This is an official warning that we are carrying out an investigation of your address. We have asked you to contact us several times but you have not responded. It is a criminal offence to watch or record television programmes as they are being shown on TV unless you have a TV licence.”
“This is an official warning that the TV Licensing Enforcement Division will be proceeding with a full investigation of the above address. This is because there is still no record of a TV licence at this property.”
Letters from the state broadcaster.
“Your address is unlicensed. I called to find out why.”
Heading on notice left by BBC agents when unable to interview citizens who have not asked for permission to watch TV.
“Our officers may ask to inspect your licence and television equipment at any time, but you do not have to let them into your home without a search warrant. We can end or change your licence at any time by writing to you.”
From the television licence form sent to every household in Britain
“An Enforcement Officer has been scheduled to visit to find out if TV is being watched or recorded illegally. The Officer my visit your property any day of the week, morning or evening.”
Letter from the BBC's enforcement agency to owner of property without a TV licence (2011).
And let us be clear. The BBC does not write threatening letters and send investigators to pound on the doors just of those watching its own channels without its permission. It does this to everyone who does not have a licence. Regardless of whether they watch only commercial TV or are paying a satellite or cable subscription. This is a system that the BBC has described as "broadly fair [and] proportionate".
The only way to avoid this, at least for a time, even if you do not have a TV, VCR, digital recorder or TV enabled computer, is to give up the rights of a free citizen. To give up the right to go about your lawful business undisturbed and instead explain your lack of a licence to the BBC's enforcers. The Vehicle Licensing Agency does not ask this of citizens who do not have a licence to drive. The police do not ask to search the homes of citizens for stolen goods when there is no evidence for this. But the very life of the BBC depends on such tactics.
Dear Mr. Smith,
Comet Group Plc have told us that you bought TV receiving equipment there in September 2009. We can't find any record of a TV licence at the above address. . . . It's illegal to watch or record TV programmes as they are being shown on TV without a valid licence.
From a letter sent by the BBC's enforcement agency.
To enforce its demands the BBC monitors every household in Britain. It has a database of 29m homes. In 2016 it sent 51.5m threatening letters, though four out of every five are sent to properties where a licence is not required. And its investigators made 3.9m visits to the homes of citizens. However the records show that in about 60% of cases the door is not opened to them.
In 2018 it was revealed that the investigators' managers were paid thousands of pounds in bonuses if their investigators reached targets for taking statements that could be used in a prosecution. If the investigator just sold licences there was no bonus. But if they took statements and sold licences to the same viewers the manager got a bonus for each.
Stores selling TVs are required to file reports on purchasers (in 2011 the government announced that, as part of a deregulation programme, this requirement would be ended). The Royal Mail makes a report to the licensing agency when people move home.
The BBC's investigators also patrol the streets in vans fitted with electronic eavesdropping devices (although there is a strong suspicion that the eavesdropping is a ruse), for which they need no warrant, to locate those who are watching TV without a licence. In their advertisements they boast of this disgraceful behaviour to intimidate licence refusers. In one poster they warned residents of a named street to beware because the BBC knew they were watching TV without a licence. In fact, the residents were Orthodox Jews who for religious reasons owned no TVs.
Whatever the motive in 2015 the numbers for the twelve months to 31 March 2015 were revealed inadvertently in the course of a freedom of information application.
They showed that no search warrants had been issued in Scotland during that year. This may be because Scottish sheriffs, who are legally qualified, are less easily mislead than are the justices of the peace in other jurisdictions.
In the whole of the UK the licence enforcers asked their legal team to approve 351 search warrant applications. But only 256 applications for warrants were made.
The magistrate court justices approved 167 warrants to enter and search property for illegal TV watching. But only 115 of these warrants were executed, 97 successfully.
In London, the UK's largest city, only two search warrants were issued.
The agents have paid particular attention to single mothers in poor neighbourhoods who, experience tells them, are more likely to confess to watching TV without permission. This gives them the evidence to make their case in court and have the “criminal” fined. Electronic eavesdropping data has never been used to get a conviction.
In 2016 184,895 people were prosecuted for watching TV without a licence. The number convicted was 163,280.
The average fine imposed by the courts for this crime ranged from £86 in the Northern Ireland jurisdiction to £188 in the English.
In England and Wales 29 of those convicted did not pay the fine. The average time for which they were sent to prison was 21 days. In the much smaller jurisdiction of Northern Ireland 61 citizens were locked up for an average of 7.8 days.
Between 2008 and 2017 the Corporation had 1,231 UK citizens sent to prison for watching TV without a licence.
The area of England with the highest number of convictions was Cleveland, one of the most deprived parts of the UK.
TV licence evaders (who appear in the magistrate court) are predominantly female, many of them benefit recipients with children. Most are single, struggling to keep their families financially afloat . . . (The Citizens Advice Bureau reports that the BBC's collection agency pursues known offenders as the easiest target).
Joan Horton, Justice of the Peace.
Licensing the Internet
The BBC's "royal charter", which allows it to use these methods, is reviewed every ten years. The 2007 review resulted in the continuation of the licence system, as critics of the corporation had expected. They had hoped, however, that as the means of delivering TV become increasingly sophisticated in the next few years and the BBC loses even more viewers, it would become impossible for the state broadcaster to hang on to privileges that are more in keeping with the East Germany of the 1950s than a free society.
Now, however, the Corporation claims that citizens need its permission if they use a computer, mobile phone, or games console, or "anything else" to watch TV. The idea of licensing personal computers was first raised in a 2005 government "green paper" on the future of the Corporation. It said that a "levy" on owners of personal computers might be necessary to finance the broadcaster. This would happen if large numbers switched to watching TV on the Internet instead of using standard television receivers.
It is not clear whether the government was thinking of requiring computer owners to buy an annual licence to use their equipment, as is the case with TVs. This seems likely, however, as a one-off tax on computer purchases would need to be prohibitively high in order to bring in the necessary revenue.
And in a 2009 report on the licence fee the BBC Trust warned that "legislative change is likely to be required to reflect technological changes". In other words, if people switch to watching TV through the Internet the BBC must control access to the Internet. This would further threaten free speech and enhance the ability of the Corporation to extort money. For now, however, the Corporation has decided that it needs no change in the law in order to extend the licensing requirement.
However, in 2014 cracks began to appear in establishment support for the BBC.
Responding to demands from MPs, the government set up a "TV Licence Enforcement Review" to consider whether watching TV without a licence should continue to be a criminal offence. The Centre for Citizenship's submission to the review can be downloaded here.
Any recommendation was not to take effect before the 2016 review of the Corporation's "royal" charter. However, the arrogant unelected legislators in the House of Lords postponed the date of any change until 2017.
If it had been decided that criminal prosecution is no longer acceptable it is likely that the licence would have been enforced by civil legal proceedings instead. The Corporation feared that the greater difficulty in taking action against the unlicensed that this would cause would have cost it between £35m and £200m a year in lost income.
At the same time there were suggestions in the news media that the BBC should develop technology that would allow it to block reception for citizens without a licence. If this were to happen apologists for the licence would no longer be able to claim that the unlicensed were cheaters.
The recommendation from the Review was to contine with criminal prosecution for unlicenced TV watching. And the government agreed.
Capita, a firm to which many public and private concerns outsource their support services, has the contract for the collection of the BBC's television tax. The contract that started in July 2012 will give the company between £1.10bn and £1.55bn if it lasts the maximum of fifteen years. The more people it coerces into paying, the more it will be paid.
Capita's enforcers try to intimidate the estimated 5.1 per cent of households in which they believe TV is watched without permission. Single mothers and students in particular have been targeted. Here's a Capita advert for a "self-motivated and forward-thinking" enforcer.
Capita Chief Executive until 2017 Paul Pindar was paid a total of £2.68m in 2015.