Britain's Deficient Democracy
The television licence
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“This is an official warning that we are carrying out an investigation of your address. We have asked you to contact us several times but you have not responded. It is a criminal offence to watch or record television programmes as they are being shown on TV unless you have a TV licence.”
“This is an official warning that the TV Licenseing Enforcement Division will be proceeding with a full investigation of the above address. This is because there is still no record of a TV licence at this property.”
Letters from the state broadcaster
“Your address is unlicensed. I called to find out why.”
Heading on notice left by BBC agents when unable to interiew citizens who have not asked for permission to watch TV.
“Our officers may ask to inspect your licence and television equipment at any time, but you do not have to let them into your home without a search warrant.
"We can end or change your licence at any time by writing to you.”
From the television licence form sent to every household in Britain
“An Enforcement Officer has been scheduled to visit to find out if TV is being watched or recorded illegally. The Officer my visit your property any day of the week, morning or evening.
Letter from the BBC's enforcement agency to owner of property without a TV licence (2011).
“Greatest Force for Cultural Good on the Face of the Earth"
London is in our database. Evaders will pay.
London 2008. BBC poster threatens those who watch TV without permission.
Is the British Broadcasting Corporation, sometimes affectionately called “the Beeb” by its admirers “the greatest force for cultural good on the face of the earth” or a politically biased extortion racket?
The first claim was made by Mark Thompson, the state broadcaster's director-general. The second opinion might be held by a republican aware of the corporation's long record of propping-up the feudal institution of monarchy, while harassing citizens for the crime of not seeking its permission to watch TV.
But both points of view draw attention to something else. That is that the BBC, despite its birth in the 20th century, fits well with Britain's feudal attitudes and institutions. (If you doubt this read the statement of the BBC Trust's chairman later in the article). Like an arrogant Lord, it sees itself as a worthy dispenser of what it thinks is good for the masses. And it believes that this entitles it to have its hands in the pockets of the masses whether or not they want what it dispenses.
BBC Trust Chairman Michael Lyon warned “the government and opposition parties . . . that he and the other trustees were appointed by the Queen, through the Privy Council ‘rather than just at the dictate of ministers’”, according to the Financial Tines. He was “sending a defiant message to politicians of all parties that his organisation will conduct an ‘all-or-nothing’ struggle to protect” the privileges of the corporation.
And by accepting that the BBC may ignore their civil rights merely to broadcast TV, the British have done something even worse. They have signalled that when more serious matters are at stake too, they will accept their subservience to the state.
The Licence and Civil Liberties
For the BBC speech is not free when it takes the form of TV broadcasts. Watching TV requires its permission and an annual payment of £142.50. This gives it £3.49bn a year to spend as it likes.
Not only does the corporation disdain to offer its goods to be bought or rejected according to individual wishes. It gets its money with methods that no private business or state agency would dare use.
Those who do not have a licence, even those who own no TV or VCR, can expect close attention from the media giant. After a number of
threatening letters its agents will visit. They will demand to search without a warrant if the property owner says she does not have a TV. (Here's a public admission of that from the head licence enforcer David Legge). And they will try to “interview under caution” those they suspect of watching TV without permission (a police term equivalent to the American “reading your rights”). It even carries out covert operations under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. But as the BBC told the Financial Times, this "is only used as a last resort once other enforcement methods have been exhausted".
And let us be clear. The BBC does not write threatening letters and send investigators to pound on the doors just of those watching its own channels without its permission. It does this to everyone who does not have a licence. Regardless of whether they watch only commercial TV or are paying a satellite or cable subscription.
The only way to avoid this, at least for a time, even if you do not have a TV, VCR, digital recorder or TV enabled computer, is to give up the rights of a free citizen. To give up the right to go about your lawful business undisturbed and instead explain your lack of a licence to the BBC's enforcers. The Vehicle Licensing Agency does not ask this of citizens who do not have a licence to drive. The police do not ask to search the homes of citizens for stolen goods when there is no evidence for this. But the very life of the BBC depends on such tactics.
Dear Mr. Smith,
Comet Group Plc have told us that you bought TV receiving equipment there in September 2009. We can't find any record of a TV licence at the above address.
. . .
It's illegal to watch or record TV programmes as they are being shown on TV without a valid licence.
From a letter sent by the BBC's enforcement agency.
To enforce its demands the BBC monitors every household in Britain. It has a database of 29m homes. In 2006 - 2007 its agents made 3.6m visits to such homes, although in 60% of cases the door was not opened to them. Stores selling TVs are required to file reports on purchasers (in 2011 the government announced that, as part of a deregulation programme, this requirement would be ended). The Royal Mail makes a report to the licensing agency when people move home.
The BBC's investigators also patrol the streets in vans fitted with electronic eavesdropping devices (although there is a strong suspicion that the eavesdropping is a ruse), for which they need no warrant, to locate those who are watching TV without a licence. In their advertisements they boast of this disgraceful behaviour to intimidate licence refusers. In one poster they warned residents of a named street to beware because the BBC knew they were watching TV without a licence. In fact, the residents were Orthodox Jews who for religious reasons owned no TVs.
The agents have paid particular attention to single mothers in poor neighbourhoods who, experience tells them, are more likely to confess to watching TV without permission. This gives them the evidence to make their case in court and have the “criminal” fined. Electronic eavesdropping data has never been used to get a conviction.
TV licence evaders (who appear in the magistrate court) are predominantly female, many of them benefit recipients with children. Most are single, struggling to keep their families financially afloat . . . (The Citizens Advice Bureau reports that the BBC’s collection agency pursues known offenders as the easiest target).
Joan Horton, Justice of the Peace.
Licensing the Internet
The BBC's “royal charter”, which allows it to use these methods, is reviewed every ten years. The 2007 review resulted in the continuation of the licence system, as critics of the corporation had expected. They had hoped, however, that as the means of delivering TV become increasingly sophisticated in the next few years and the BBC loses even more viewers, it would become impossible for the state broadcaster to hang on to privileges that are more in keeping with the East Germany of the 1950s than a free society.
Now, however, the Corporation claims that citizens need it permission if they use a computer, mobile 'phone, or games console, or "anything else" to watch TV. The idea of licencing personal computers was first raised in a 2005 government “green paper” on the future of the Corporation. It said that a “levy” on owners of personal computers might be necessary to finance the broadcaster. This would happen if large numbers switched to watching TV on the Internet instead of using standard television receivers.
It is not clear whether the government was thinking of requiring computer owners to buy an annual licence to use their equipment, as is the case with TVs. This seems likely, however, as a one-off tax on computer purchases would need to be prohibitively high in order to bring in the necessary revenue.
And in a 2009 report on the licence fee the BBC Trust warned that “legislative change is likely to be required to reflect technological changes”. In other words, if people switch to watching TV through the Internet the BBC must control access to the Internet. This would further threaten free speech and enhance the ability of the Corporation to extort money. For now, however, the Corporation has decided that it needs no change in the law in order to extend the licencing requirement.
Popular resistance to the licence has been growing. The BBC’s own research in 2004 showed that the number who would rather the BBC went out of business than pay the licence fee had doubled to 19% of the population.
In a Guardian/ICM opinion poll in 2009, 57 per cent of respondents were opposed to the licence fee. The BBC's enforcement agency estimates that 5.1% of those liable to pay refuse to do so, costing the corporation £181.9m a year. It prosecutes as many as 150,000 citizens a year. These prosecutions for watching TV without permission amount to 17% of the business of magistrates courts. Many of those prosecuted by the BBC just cannot afford the licence fee.
The maximum fine for not paying the tax on free speech is £1000. However, the average is only £100, with £41 in court costs added. More than 50 per cent of those fined still do not pay for a licence to view.
A number of centres of resistance have appeared. Some low-income residents of Liverpool were given legal aid to fight prosecutions for having no licence. Many citizens in Northern Ireland have refused to pay in protest against British rule. The level of resistance there, at 9.8%, is higher than anywhere else in the UK. Journalist Jonathan Miller and Soviet prison camp survivor Vladimir Bukovsky have publicly refused to pay. Bukovsky has been a refusnik for six years, citing the low quality of its output and a pro-European Union bias that puts it in breach of its charter. Neither Miller nor Bukovsky have been prosecuted for being unlicensed to watch TV. Mr. Miller estimates that there are 1 million citizens who do not pay. A Facebook campaign opposing the licence has won 200,000 supporters.
The BBC argues that its right to licence TV viewing, rather than be funded from general taxation, guarantees its political independence. The idea that a state agency, particularly one as influential as the BBC, should be beyond the control of the people is dangerous in itself. However, for most of what the BBC broadcasts, from the soaps to the snooker tournaments, such independence is irrelevant.
In those areas where impartiality is important, the BBC often shows a strong bias. In particular, the corporation has been a good friend of feudal monarchy and an enemy of republican democracy.
The Invention of Tradition explains how BBC journalist Richard Dimblby used his commentaries on royal occasions to build a sense of public awe around the Windsor family, that has helped them resist democratisation. This monarchist bias is also illustrated by the case of a participant in a BBC radio discussion programme who was asked by the BBC moderator to withdraw his criticism of monarchy. The moderator found such democratic ideas unspeakable.
A culture of institutional self-regard enveloped the organisation, creating a patrician, paternalistic and often patronising attitude towards the public. Such delusions of grandeur continue today, despite the vibrant market in commercial broadcasting.
Antony Jay. creator of the BBC's Yes Minister
In his Ireland in the Twentieth Century Tim Pat Coogan says that "the north of Ireland BBC was virtually an autonomous region, responsive throughout the strike (by loyalists in 1974 against the Sunningdale Agreement) to Unionist attitudes . . . to such an extent that a member of the Irish Government, Garret FitzGerald, a future Taoiseach, would later claim that the BBC was running a rebel station".
The BBC refers to Irish nationalist terrorists in Northern Ireland as “dissident republicans”. In 2009 BBC TV News followed a report on an opinion poll about support for monarchy immediately with another report that “a leading republican” had been arrested on charges of multiple homicide. The “leading republican” was, in fact, the leader of a small Irish nationalist terrorist group, completely unrelated to mainstream British republicanism. But there was no apology from “the greatest force for cultural good in the world”. This demonstrated not only the bias of the BBC but also the shallowness of its claim that the licensing system allows it to practice a superior form of journalism.
In 2010 the BBC revealed that it intended to continue its policy of discrimination against republicans. In a report to the BBC Trust the director-general said that the state media giant would spend more money on covering Windsor family funerals and weddings, which he described as "nationally unifying events".
However recent attempts by the Corporation to whip up public sympathy for the monarchy have not always worked. It had planned elaborate coverage of public grief on the death of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the mother of the present head of state, known as “the Queen Mother”. In the event lack of public interest caused the state broadcaster to tone down its coverage. When it switched a popular hospital drama to another channel to make way for a tribute, 4.9m viewers also switched channels to watch the drama.
Coverage of the BBC report gave weight to the view that the Corporation sees its own status as similar to that that of the feudal institution, unaccountable to democratic institutions. Professor Steven Barnett told the Financial Times that the BBC says in effect “we are not going to be beholden to the private sector or politicians”. Another commentator quoted in the newspaper said the BBC “trust is not answerable to politicians but to a royal charter”.
The BBC is now supervised by a “Trust”, a supposed regulator of sorts. Conservative Party shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt described the Trust accurately in 2009 as both “regulator and cheerleader”. It claims to protect the interests of the licence payers. But it certainly does not look after the interests of those who would rather not pay te licence fee, or even of those who might like a much smaller public broadcaster. It seems to see the interests of the licence payers as identical to those of the BBC that takes their money.
Michael Lyons, who chairs the BBC Trust, declared in an interview with The Financial Times that the state broadcaster should not be subject to democratic controls. According to the newspaper he reminded “the government and opposition parties . . . that he and the other trustees were appointed by the Queen, through the Privy Council ‘rather than just at the dictate of ministers’”. According to the FT Mr. Lyons was “sending a defiant message to politicians of all parties that his organisation will conduct an ‘all-or-nothing’ struggle to protect” its tax on TV watching.
Good At Spending Other People's Money
Figures published in 2009 showed the BBC spending £20m a year on its top 100 executives. Almost £1.9m of the money it seized went into the pockets of just four of them. The top 100 took an average of £217,000 in pay and expenses. A Freedom of Information Act disclosure in 2010 showed that six-figure salaries were being paid to 382 BBC executives. That amounts to the fees paid for permission to watch TV by 400,000 households. A third of these executives were taking more than £160,000. The corporation's top 50 executive were getting more than the Prime Minister's salary of £192,000. Director-General Thompson was paid £664.000. The additional expenses he claimed included £647 for two nights in a Las Vegas casino hotel and 70p for car parking. Only about one in ten of the executives the BBC thought worth a six-figure income was in the broadcaster's journalism department, although it likes to use its claim to outstanding reporting to justify it tax on TV viewers. The total bill the corporation presented to TV viewers for travel and accommodation was £45m. The total bill for senior managers' salaries came to £79m.
The cost of collecting the tax on free speech was £119m in 2008-9, according to the Corporation. That is to say that the first 847,000 licence fees collected paid not for the BBC's TV channels or radio stations, but for revenue collection. £119m of taxpayers' money wasted.
The £3.49 billion in fees collected by the licence enforcers provides about 86 percent of the running costs of the Corporation's national TV channels and many radio stations. The government and BBC agreed in 2000 that for each of the next seven years the licence fee should be increased by 1.5 percent more than inflation. Thus, its revenue increased even as its share of TV viewers declined.
It could receive a grant directly from the Exchequer, with its editorial independence guaranteed by statute. With the millions saved on collection and enforcement, the compensating adjustment to income tax would be tiny, with most households breaking even. Thousands of low-income households would be relieved of an onerous burden. The forgetful and disorganised would not be criminalised.
Broadcasting Policy Group.
In the 3 years to 2003 the out-of-control Corporation's spending on TV, radio and Internet services increased by 35 per cent, or £616m. The BBC started more new services in 2002 and 2003 than in the first 80 years of its existence. The state broadcaster increased its expenditure on programmes by 17 percent in the 2002 - 2003 financial year, bringing the total to £2.38b.
Not content with spending taxpayers’ money on 8 TV channels and 44 radio stations, its spent another £73m on Web sites. £193m was spent on digital channels with small audiences. BBC4, which has cost taxpayers £30m had only 4,000 viewers for some programmes.
According to TV production company executive Peter Bazalgette, writing in the Financial Times, an American cable channel worked out that each member of its programme commissioning team covered three times as many hours as their BBC equivalents.
In 2010 the National Audit Office revealed that the Corporation was getting poor value for money from its live broadcasts of sporting and musical events. The Audit Office accused the state broadcaster of being insufficiently rigorous in calculating budgets. The BBC spent £246m to buy the right to broadcast such events in 2008-9 and another £111m on the staff and facilities for the events. £250,000 was paid for a purpose-built studio in Vienna for a football championship so that the city skyline should form the backdrop. For the Beijing Olympics it spent £160,000 to build its own studio. Spending on the Wimbledon tennis tournament in 2008 was £700,000 over a budget of £2.5m. Licence fee payers were charged
£1.74 million for broadcasts of the Glastonbury music festival.
"The BBC has a track record of committing public money without fully analysing the costs and benefits, according to the House of Commons public accounts committee.
"Too often there has been a culture where ends have overridden means", the spending watchdog concludes in a report published today.
A number of projects are singled out for criticism, including redevelopment of Broadcasting House, which saw project management failings cost the corporation more than £100m, and the £576,000 bill for using a studio in Vienna for coverage of the Euro 2008 football tournament in order to provide the "necessary backdrop".
The committee also admonishes the BBC Trust for failing to provide information except under a guarantee that it would not be made public. "The Trust seems to think it is acceptable to negotiate the terms on which it will do business with parliament. This is unacceptable and discourtesy" the committee says.
Financial Times report, April 2010
Although funded by taxpayers the BBC it is not accountable to Parliament. The Public Accounts Committee is not allowed to inspect its financial records. Before 2010 The National Audit Office (NAO) was allowed to look at its spending only if the BBC Trust invited it to. Now the NAO can choose what to look into but will report what it finds to the BBC itself. Further progress may be made in a new communications bill in 2011. The NAO described the change as "a step towards full accountability".
Bad At Broadcasting
Although nothing could justify the BBC's revenue-raising methods, it tries to find justification in the “cultural good” that Mr. Thompson claims that it does. In reality, most viewers of the BBC’s many channels will see little to support his claim. They are more likely to witness a torrent of mediocre programmes.
The idea of public service broadcasting that the BBC embraces and that taxpayers must support includes a lottery draw, endless soaps and snooker marathons.
A Financial Times journalist has described most BBC programmes as “dumbed down” and “virtually indistinguishable from (those on) commercial channels.” He characterised some as “fifth rate” and “garbage.”
The proportion of its income that the corporation spends on programme content fell between 2007 and 2009. Most of its budget for drama is spent on three “soaps”.
British dramatist Peter Jukes told Prospect magazine in 2009 that the BBC's dominant position was responsible for a decline in high-end TV drama. He blamed the state broadcaster for the failure of British TV to compete with the best of American drama such as The Wire and Mad Men. Mr. Jukes said that the BBC's internal politics and “Who's up and who's down” determined which TV shows were commissioned, not the “quality of an idea”.
Whatever your view of public service broadcasting (and I support it) the near monopoly of the BBC in drama commissioning is disastrous.
In the “weapons of mass destruction dossier” scandal the BBC was seen to take advantage of the trust widely placed in it to give credence to a dubious news story, exaggerating the status of its anonymous source. The then BBC chief Gavyn Davies admitted to the Hutton enquiry into to the death of that source, David Kelly, that his corporation had not validated its allegation that the government had used false intelligence to make its case for war before broadcasting it.
Corporation Fights for Its Privileges
Mr. Thompson made his claim that the arrogant state media giant was the greatest power for cultural good as his company was on the verge of winning its battle for the government to both renew its charter that had been due to expire in 2006 and keep the TV licensing system.
But although the BBC is to be allowed to continue its extortion, it will no longer have it all its own way. The government said it would review the licence fee system again in 2010, instead of waiting for the new ten year charter to expire. However, plans to make the corporation share some of the licence income with producers of independent regional news programmes has been posptponed until 2012, after the general election.
The replacement of the old board of governors with an “independent” Trust was also intended to rein in the arrogant giant. As we have seen, the BBC seems instead to have made the Trust its ally.
Although the government is to increase the TV licence fee from £131.50 to £151.50 by 2012 the BBC has complained that it will be £2bn short of the money it needs. Director-General Mark Thompson has claimed that it will be unable to improve the poor quality of its programmes without this money.
The increases in the fee was planned to be lower than the expected increases in the retail price index. At the time this was decided it seemed to mean a reduction in income in real terms.
“Welcome to the real world” said the Financial Times when the settlement was announced. The newspaper argued that licence fee funding could not be justified after 2012. It also believed that the government would be “highly nervous” about creating “television licence martyrs” by enforcing the licence on people watching TV on personal computers. An increasing number of people are already realising that in fact the BBC has great difficulty taking legal action against viewers who refuse to buy a licence.
This was good news for civil rights advocates and critics of what one Labour MP has called the “imperial” BBC. But for those, like BBC director-general Mark Thompson it was an important setback.
The bloated broadcaster promised to increase its output of serious programmes, shed 1350 jobs and out-source some functions to cut costs. This unusual responsiveness to public concern at a time when it has felt under threat is a powerful demonstration of the effectiveness of that accountability that the company so fiercely resists. In 2009, as criticism of its size, ambitions for growth and distortion of the market continued, it showed signs of making another concession by considering selling BBC Worldwide, its commercial operation, in what the Financial Times called “part of a wider effort to resist attacks on the corporation's scale and ambition” The annual revenue of this part of the state broadcaster, which recently bought the Lonely Planet travel guide business, is £1bn.
Just as the Windsor family has over many years made minor concessions to a democratic society in order to protect its feudal privileges, so does the BBC. But as with our hereditary head of state and the legislators-for-life in Parliament, its actions show that it regards with contempt the idea of true accountability to the people.
State Media Giant Facts (2009)|
BBC annual budget £4.6bn
TV tax revenue £3.49bn
Programmes expenditure £2.38bn (17% increase)
Staff costs £1.294bn
Annual surplus £253.7m
Annual cost of News24 £58m
Average weekly viewers News24 6.6m
Annual cost of BBC4 £64.8m
Annual cost of Web sites £177m
TV channels - 8
Radio stations - 44
Number of premises with licence to view TV 25.3m
Number of premises BBC estimates evade tax 1.45m
Cost of collecting licence fees £119m
The Well Connected BBC
"The prospect of the UK without the BBC funded by the licence fee is anywhere between improbably to impossible because the BBC is one of the most loved and trusted UK institutions." Tessa Jowell, Minister for the Olympics and former Minister of Culture
The good friends of the BBC include:
Tessa Jowell. Minister for the Olympics, Paymaster General
Patricia Hodgson. Member of the BBC Trust, former Director of Independent Television Commission (regulates TV companies that compete with BBC). Formerly head of BBC Policy & Planning.
Nick Lovegrove. Assistant to Patricia Hodgson at ITC. Formerly BBC official.
Sue Nye.Special Adviser to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Wife of Gavyn Davies, former BBC Chairperson
John Birt. Former Head of Prime Minister's forward strategy unit and BBC Directory General.
Bill Bush. Adviser to Tessa Jowell as Culture Minister. Formerly BBC head of political research.
Source: The Financial Times
The Financial Times has described Ms. Jowell as "a consistent champion" of the BBC. It said she had "defeated calls" from political allies and foes to significantly change the licence fee system. The FT noted that the Prime Minister had accepted a statement by Ms. Jowell that her husband, who has been the subject of corruption allegations in Italy, "did not tell her for four years (that) he had received a $600,000 gift".
A Personal Account
An American View
If you think opposition to the TV licence is overheated, try imagining this. The government comes to the conclusion, very reasonably, that the British press does not do a good job. It sensationalises, it exaggerates, it trivialises etc. They hit on the idea of public service print media. A daily newspaper. Serious. Responsible. Comprehensive. An independent commission will have oversight. Impartiality will be its watchword.
But how to finance this paragon? Easy. A tax on newspaper readers. Just require that anybody who wants to buy a newspaper have an official licence to read. It would cost just a few pounds a year. Credit card size to flash at the checkout.
What's the objection? Its done already for TV and everybody admires BBC News.
Capita, a firm to which many public and private concerns outsource their support services, has the contract for the collection of the BBC's television tax. The broadcasting giant is paying Capita at least £500,000,000 for the ten year contract.
Capita's 1500 enforcers have been trying to reduce from 8% to 5% the number of TV users who are thought by the BBC not to pay the annual tax without which watching commercial channels or using a video recorder is illegal. That would give the corporation another £60M each year for its portfolio of TV channels and radio stations, and for its web site and search engine. Students in particular are to be targeted. Here's a
Capita advert for a "self-motivated and forward-thinking" enforcer.
The annual bonus of Capita chairperson Rod Aldridge will increase if his firm can force more people to pay the tax. His remuneration package in 2001 was £438,847.
The BBC: Windsor family servant
A death in the family
The Abolish the TV Licence Campaign
Harassed for having no TV