The TV Licence Gestapo

by Benjamin Studebaker

It’s that time again–no, not for the wheel of morality, but for the British government’s annual welcoming of students back to university. Is it a reduction in tuition fees? A care package full of sweets? An expression of thanks to the international students for helping to keep tuition costs down for everyone else? None of these things. It’s a friendly letter from the TV Licencing Authority. Two friendly letters, in fact, which I received this year on the very same day. One is from September, which happens to be before term started, and it informs me of the British practise of TV licencing–the requirement that all people in the UK who watch live television purchase a TV licence, the proceeds of which goes to fund the BBC. The other, apparently from this month, tells me that last month I received a letter and took no action, and that consequently I am now under “investigation”, an investigation which “could lead to a summons, a court hearing, or a fine of up to 1,000 pounds plus legal costs”.  I am unfazed by this–at the start of each academic year, the TV Licencing Authority threatens me (and everyone else at the university who hasn’t bought a TV license) with an investigation. Every year I inform them that I do not require a licence (I do not own a TV in Britain and watch no live television on my laptop), every year they tell me they may stop by to ensure that I’m not lying, and every year they don’t actually bother to do that. This is not a very pleasant way of interacting with HM Government, to be accused of trying to steal British television right off the plane. In my home country, the United States, we don’t bother with TV licences at all, and so I always find myself reacting to these letters with the thought that well, this is a sort of stupid way to fund the BBC–surely there is a superior alternative? I propose that there is indeed a much more sensible way to do it that does not involve falsely accusing piles and piles of people of fraud, and that proposal follows.

The British government and the BBC justify the TV licencing system by saying that it’s publicly supported–in a Guardian poll, it was reported that “more people back the license fee than any alternative”:

The fee is backed by 43%, against 24% who think advertising should foot the bill and 30% who think people should pay to subscribe if they want to see BBC programmes.

In order to get this result, the Guardian offers a false choice, in which there are only three options for funding the BBC, and all of them are terrible. The TV licencing system involves a Gestapo monitoring force that sends people threatening letters and, far more importantly, charges everyone the same fee for the licence regardless of income or ability to pay. That makes the TV licencing system regressive–it financially costs the poor a higher percentage of their resources to get access to a public resource. Advertisements have their own problems, because they associate the BBC, a public institution, with private sector companies leading to a potential source of bias, and also forces the BBC to use commercial breaks which interrupt and detract from programming quality. The subscription service, in which the BBC is treated like Sky or any other channel and requires a subscription in order to view its programming allows people who watch live television but do not watch the BBC to avoid paying, and so results in a higher subscription fee. This makes the funding for the BBC even more regressive than under the licencing option. In short, these are all really bad, stupid funding options, that either damage programming quality or punish poor people for being poor. There is another option that is never even mentioned by the British government when it considers its funding options, that is not even brought up widely in the media, and which makes far more sense–the government should fund the BBC the same way it funds everything else it does, through the progressive tax system.

The military, the National Health Service, education, infrastructure, everything else in this country is paid for by taxes. What is special about the BBC that makes the same pay structure untenable? The usual retort is that the BBC is a form of entertainment, that it’s not essential and that people should have an option about whether or not they want to pay for it. If this principle has merit–that paying taxes for expenditures on entertainment is wrong, that people should have a choice, then the British government’s indirect funding of all kinds of entertainments through the construction of stadiums, the funding of the Arts Council, the Olympics, the construction of parks, all of these things should be paid for with licences. Imagine going to a park and meeting a guard at the gate who asks to see your “park licence”. Imagine getting threatening letters from the “Park Licencing Authority” threatening to investigate you for not purchasing a park licence. It’s utterly ridiculous–park licences, ironically, would be easier to enforce than TV licences, because the government could just check to see if you had one before you entered a park rather than having to bust into your house and catch you watching television without a licence.

Not everyone goes to parks. Not everyone enjoys or likes parks, or nature more generally for that matter. We all pay for it, though, because the government has decided that parks and nature are good for society–even if you personally didn’t like parks, you still benefit because the existence of parks improves other people’s mood and subsequent productivity and attitude. The same argument could be made for the BBC–even if you don’t watch it, by promoting the welfare of other citizens, your interactions with said citizens also improve. The sense of community, all the various good things the BBC is said to provide, still help the society in which you live, even if you personally are a non-viewer. Doing this would eliminate not only the rude letters and irritating cost of having to finance these TV licencing guys, it would, more importantly, eliminate the regressive nature of the current funding structure, enabling all people in Britain, regardless of wealth, to enjoy the BBC’s programming options. Make the BBC like Britain’s parks, stop harassing people, and do something nice for the poor. It sounds like a win for most everyone, aside from the kooky people who think taxes should be optional. Why are those people winning this argument? Why have they been winning it since 1946? It’s absolutely insane, and it’s time for change.