Wednesday, January 17, 2007

TV licensing

To those of us in civilized countries, the UK's television licensing comes as quite a shock. In Britain, anybody with a television, or other device for receiving TV signals (say, a TV tuner card) must pay a yearly license fee which (in theory) pays for the BBC, instead of coming out of general tax revenue.

Consequently, retailers are required to collect the names and addresses of anyone who purchases a television, and report them to the TV Licensing Authority. The BBC Television website collects cookies to identify people visiting their television-related pages, passing them on to TV Licensing. Private inspectors can be sent to households, at any time without warning or notice, to inspect your house for televisions or other devices and ensure you are correctly licensed, and television detector vans roam the streets scanning for TV receivers. (According to Wikipedia, the inspectors don't have any powers to enter unless invited in, unless they get a warrant, nevertheless there are many abuses.) The Authority keeps vast databases of who owns televisions and who hasn't got a licence -- another part of the surveillance society.

There may be good arguments for TV licensing, but economics certainly isn't one of them. The costs of enforcing the licensing, borne by the TV Licensing Authority, householders, TV retailers, etc. are significant. Those costs would virtually disappear if it were subsumed into general taxation revenue.

An interesting case occured recently in the UK: a former prisoner and prison reform advocate, John Hirst, had his conviction for failing to be licensed over-turned on appeal after the court originally accepted he used the TV only for watching CCTV, videos and DVDs but found him "technically guilty".

According to the Register:

Despite the fact that Hirst was discharged, he took the appeal on a point of principle. "The TV Licencing Authority assume if you say that you don't watch your TV for live broadcasts you're a liar," Hirst told OUT-LAW Radio. "It's still down to the prosecution to prove guilt, not for the assumption to be there that you are guilty and you need to prove innocence.

"As far as I am concerned there is nothing such as 'technically guilty' in English law, you are either innocent or you are guilty," he said.


It was a sense of injustice that led him to take his TV licence case as far as he did. "It began with a whole lot of letters that came, each letter got more and more threatening as it went along," he said "It was a whole lot of assumptions that I was doing something wrong."

"I have admitted to offences as severe as manslaughter and arson, so I'm not going to lie on something as piddling as a TV Licence," he said. "They got that wrong, they picked on the wrong person."

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