Refusing the TV licence – finance, fines and fairytales

In the wake of scandals and accusations of bias at the BBC, in a guest post for the CPPE Blog Tony O’Tierney, a doctoral student at the University of Leicester School of Management, examines the resistance to the TV licence fee in the UK.

In recent years, an increasing number of videos have appeared on YouTube depicting people taking a stance against the payment of the UK TV licence fee. A typical recording comprises a doorstep conversation with an employee of the firm Capita seeking permission to enter the house to check for a TV. The resident asks them for identification, followed by a query as to whether they are under any obligation to speak to them. When told they are not, the resident then asks the Capita employee to leave the premises; sometimes adding that any ‘implied rights of access’ to their property are revoked, so that future visits could amount to trespass. These videos can be seen to highlight the current situation as regards the TV licence fee with many becoming disillusioned with paying it.

A yearly licence for receiving television broadcasts was introduced to the UK in 1946, in combination with a, then, radio licence. Now termed the ‘TV licence fee’, the price has risen considerably faster than inflation, to £145.50 for a colour TV; the collection and enforcement of which is administered by Capita Business Services Ltd., with revenue distributed chiefly to the BBC.

With the increase in content available online, many choose not to view live television broadcasts, and so have no need of a licence. TV Licensing provide a form to notify them. In the absence of such a declaration, the organisation presumes to contact households. Given the undiscriminating and largely automated nature of this contact, it can be erroneous or excessive, generating negative sentiment among recipients and with compensation even being paid as a result according to the degree of error and the impact upon the individual.

The BBC suggests that rates of licence fee evasion remain steady, between 5-6%.

Various reasons are given as motives for the actions, depicted in the videos on YouTube, of those refusing to pay the fee. Some point to the profligate spending of the BBC, on expenses and bonuses; others, to scandals and cover ups, as well as £28 million mysteriously spent on gagging orders in recent years. One of the most common complaints against the corporation is that the organisation provides biased coverage of middle-eastern conflicts, with a prominent former politician and BBC employee challenging them over this. Meanwhile, another well-known former BBC presenter openly refused payment of the fee on the grounds of the intimidating tactics used in administering it.

Historically, the threat of detecting ‘unlicensed’ TV usage was seen by the BBC as “…an effective deterrent to licence fee evasion…” However, despite the threatening and Orwellian tone of its advertisements, the organisation acknowledges that “…TVL has not, to date, used detection evidence in Court”, and it appears the technology may have been a convenient myth.

TV Licensing detector van. Source:  Andrew Milligan/PA

TV Licensing detector van. Source: Andrew Milligan/PA

Despite this, 1 in 10 of all criminal convictions in the UK in 2012 were due to non-payment of the licence fee, suggesting a prosecution rate of approximately 11%. The maximum penalty is a £1,000 court-imposed fine or a 14-30 day prison sentence in the event of its non-payment, with increases in the fine being considered. This is in contrast to non-payment of utility bills and parking fines, which are civil matters, although a Bill to decriminalise the offense was recently heard in parliament.

Currently, magistrates’ courts can grant a warrant based on testimony providing reasonable grounds for believing that an offense has been committed, although the BBC refuses to disclose how many are granted each year.

Should a court case be initiated against an alleged offender, the evidence usually comprises a completed TVL 178 form; a signed record of an encounter, which serves as a confession by the householder. This is presented to residents after an ‘inspection’ for them to voluntarily sign.

The TV licence fee has undergone several changes over the years, and in future may be disconnected from usage of a television entirely, to become a “universal charge” against households. What this would mean for those resistant to the current regime is yet to be seen. Criticism of both the fee and the manner in which it’s enforced seems unlikely to go away but changes seem to be on the horizon. Whether non-payment will remain criminal, or feasible, is uncertain.

For those interested in some of the issues raised here, one blog provides a free ebook presenting a critical stance on the subject.

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