On television licensing

Apparently, the BBC has claimed that anyone who watches video clips from their website online must have a television license, or be liable to prosecution and fine. As a North American, I find the very idea of a television license offensive. Our flat has received a notice that an inspector will be coming at some future point to look for televisions. The letter reads, in part:

Your address is now on our priority list and an Enforcement Officer is planning to visit you shortly. [Emphasis theirs]

My personal inclination would be to refuse to consent to having our premisses searched – despite the fact that we have no televisions – because there is no probable cause under which to search us, and no warrant to do so issued. In the United States, I would expect such a search to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In Canada, I would expect it to be a violation of Section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Of course, that intuition is not grounded in any familiarity in British law. I assume that these inspectors do have the legal right to search a flat without consent or a warrant. It couldn’t hurt to issue a verbal refusal, at least.

The idea that the state has the right to search your home on suspicion of owning a television, then fine you if you don’t already have a license seems preposterous. The courts in Canada and the United States have generally considered the searching of a home to be a serious legal action that generally requires a warrant. To do so in order to uphold the fiscal solvency of a public broadcaster seems like a serious confusion of priorities. I understand the need to fund the BBC, but this seems like an unjustifiable imposition.

That is especially true once extended to computers which may or may not be used to watch television programs. In 2004, the Secretary of State ruled in the Television Licensing Regulations that:

“‘Television receiver’ means any apparatus installed or used for the purpose of receiving (whether by means of wireless telegraphy or otherwise) any television programme service, whether or not it is installed or used for any other purpose.”

Using my iBook to watch “The Daily Show” would appear to make it a ‘television receiver’ under this definition. When the BBC chose to put video online, it couldn’t legitimately claim to have thereby unilaterally extended the requirement for television license to all people in the UK with computers capable of viewing the information. If they made headlines available by text message, could they begin taxing anyone with a cellular phone? Can they tax people whose cellular phones can access the internet now?

I do see value in public broadcasting, insofar as it can serve some purposes that the mainstream media does not. That value does not, in my mind, justify the kind of threats that are being made.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “On television licensing”

  1. I don’t see why this is such a big deal

    How’s it different from them checking the gas meter?

  2. Um, Anon?

    It’s basically completely different. The gas company knows the meter is there, on the outside of your house, and you are subscribing to their service. The BBC approach assumed criminality and then uses search powers to investigate it, on the basis of no evidence.

  3. While extremely vague, Article Eight of the 1998 Human Rights Act seems to pertain:

    “1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

    2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

  4. Incidentally, that seems like a super-weak protection to me. Preventing ‘disorder’ and ‘protecting morals’ are pretty nebulous exemptions.

  5. Television licensing seems to be a perticularly perverse manifestation of the “user pay” ideology. State broadcasting should be paid for by the state out of general funds, for the benefit of all. A common good. Strange that in England, where the notion of common good originates from, there is such a blantent contradiction of that value in their broadcasting set up.

  6. Well, if only people with televisions benefit, there is a certain sense to only people with televisions paying. That said, I think the difficulties of enforcement outweigh the apparent fairness of that system.

  7. first off Milan, the license fee is the reason Britain boasts the BBC, widely regarded as the best public broadcaster in the world. Quite frankly, the BBC website itself justifies the charge, let alone the World Service.

    Secondly, the BBC has no legal right to search premises. Television usage is monitered using the BBC’s detector vans from outside. I have never seen one of these vans, although they presumably do exist as I remember a case a year or two ago when a woman was brought to court for refusing to pay her license because she claimed she only watched ITV. She lost.

    Get rid of the license fee and we’ll end up with FoxUK. The Beeb isn’t perfect but it’s better than most.

  8. Anonymous III, (why can’t you pick better names?)

    Unwarranted search by detector van is still unwarranted such.

    While I do acknowledge above the value of the BBC, the idea that they can expand the scope of who has to pay just by choosing to publish in another medium remains absurd and unjust.

  9. On the legal thing, those Canadian protections of which you speak (Charter) only apply to criminal charges. What they’re doing isn’t criminal, it’s regulatory. (Of course the area between criminal and regulatory is the very definition of grey area, but still…)

  10. BBC airs its first Creative Commons licensed TV show

    By Cory Doctorow on maker

    The BBC has finally produced and aired a TV show that can be released under Creative Commons, along with the “asset bundle” of associated media that went into the final cut. The show is a pilot for a broader strategy of giving Britons the freedom to re-use the material they pay for through the “license fee,” which all television owners are obliged to pay, and which funds the vast majority of the BBC’s operations.

  11. Tories could ‘rip up’ BBC charter

    A Conservative government could “rip up” the BBC’s royal charter, the shadow culture secretary has suggested.

    The current royal charter allowing the BBC’s licence fee expires in 2015.

    But Jeremy Hunt told the Financial Times that the corporation was “out of touch with the hard times the rest of the electorate is going through”.

    He said the BBC’s structure had “failed”, adding that Tories in power would have a “very fundamental root-and-branch discussion with the BBC”.

  12. The BBC provides a worldwide benefit. Hopefully, future Conservative governments in the UK will refrain from wrecking it.

  13. Now that I don’t live there, I am quite happy to have the BBC paid for by British television owners.

  14. I would gladly pay BBC television rates for U.K. citizen style access to BBC content.

  15. I think we get as good access as they do. It is pretty much all online, either on BBC sites or on places like YouTube.

  16. The BBC license fee isn’t trivial: £11.63 ($19.62) a month, regardless of your income.

    That’s half what my broadband access costs, and a third of what a bus pass costs. It’s not an insignificant expense if you are on a low income.

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