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.