The first time Americans hear that the UK requires residents to have a license to watch live television, it’s likely to induce an incredulous reaction. It’s something out of a parody, isn’t it? We’ve all seen the memes about vacuum cleaner licenses and whatnot, but it’s really not that bad, surely? Let me lay it out for you here, as a Brit with a particular chip on his shoulder about the TV License. Yes, it exists, but I’m going to take a deep dive into what it means, how it’s enforced and why it should be abolished.
What A TV License Means
The TV license is a $150 fee per year for watching and/or downloading live television on any channel in the UK, on whatever device, whether it be on a TV, your laptop or mobile devices. The money is put into funding the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) TV programmes, radio, and other services. The BBC is the British state broadcaster which produces a range of content, including news, drama, reality TV, popular and classic radio stations and film.
Misconceptions abound simply because of its name – it’s not a license to purchase a television per se, because you are allowed to own a TV and just use it for non-live content, DVDs or games without having to buy a TV license. It’s a license to watch or record live television.
Regardless, non-payment of the TV license is a criminal offense and could get you a fine up to £1,000 ($1,280).
How It’s Enforced
The license is enforced by an organization called TV Licensing, that administers the fee, and sends enforcement officers to households who have not yet paid their TV license for this year. It is technically a separate institution from the BBC, but its sole remit is to generate revenue for the BBC.
Every year, every resident will receive letters reminding them to pay their TV license. If they do not respond after a certain amount of time, they will receive a letter claiming that enforcement officers are in the area and will soon be visiting. These letters are sent regardless of whether you watch live television, or even own a set. Even if you are not watching live television, and are therefore not breaking the law, you are required to inform TV licensing that you do not need one. In such a case, enforcement officers may be sent to you to “confirm” you are not, in fact, watching TV.
However, when the enforcement officers come to your door, you are not obligated to let them in. You are not even required to confirm your name. TV Licensing enforcement officers are not the police and have only a presumed right of entry. And then, they have to catch you allowing live television to be broadcast, or catch you watching recorded programmes. Simply having a television set is not proof that you are breaking the law.
Why It Shouldn’t Exist
The TV license is not merely an inconvenience or the inevitable price for having the BBC. It is immoral and should be abolished.
The TV License is a license to watch and/or record all live television, not just the BBC. The license fee doesn’t even cover funding for other state-owned broadcasters such as Channel 4. The TV license would be more properly called the BBC license.
Yet even if you don’t consume any BBC content, you are still required to pay for it. In that sense, it is most unlike a subscription service in which you only pay for the content you consume. Those that don’t watch the BBC subsidize those who do. The TV license is an effective monopoly on all television viewing.
This might be justifiable if the TV license fee had some influence on all TV, or was contributing to the funding for other channels, but it does not.
Enforcement is done by intimidation through a number of different channels.
The first is public service announcements designed to induce fear into non-payers. Ad campaigns in the 70s and 80s proposed to viewers that TV Licensing sent out TV detector vans that could scan houses and be able to confirm who was watching live TV. There is very little to suggest that these vans actually existed and were capable of producing solid evidence, beyond goofy-looking props used in the ads, which I will post below. And in 2011, the BBC had to admit that no evidence from vans has been presented in court, ever.
TV Licensing no longer claims to have television detector devices, but the ads were so affecting that the myth is pervasive today, despite the fact such evidence gathering methods would be illegal. To this date, TV licensing has no reliable method by which they can verify that you are watching TV illegally, without entering your house. It is deliberately left ambiguous so as to convince confused people who don’t need a license to pay for one anyway.
More modern campaigns avoid telling blatant lies but still go for the fear factor.
The second method is by “reminder” letters that come every year for every UK resident. The letters will keep coming until you have paid for a license, even if you do not watch TV. Later letters will use threatening and intimidating language, typed in red, claiming that enforcement officers will soon be round to your home.
You can reply to the letters explaining that you do not own or watch TV, and do not require a license. In such a situation, they say they may send an enforcement officer round to check anyway. In either case, sometimes they do not ever appear. Again, it is simply an intimidation drive to scare people into acquiescence.
The third method is by the presence of real-life enforcement officers that do occasionally visit non-payers. Someone claiming to be from TV Licensing enforcement come to your door and ask to confirm your name and to enter the property to see if you are watching TV illegally. They will presumably then gather the evidence to bring back to the organization.
This is all stated on the TV Licensing website. It qualifies as intimidation precisely because of what they do not tell you. You do not have to let these individuals into your home. They only operate on the presumed right of entry and will have to leave if you ask them to. You are not legally obliged to acquiesce to any of their requests, or even speak to them.
They rely on people’s ignorance and intimidate single mothers and the elderly by their physical presence. Some use violence. They will also lie, for example, claiming that they can get a police search warrant on your property. They cannot. Plenty of evidence of this is available on YouTube:
The video also illustrates appropriate advice for those subject to the TV Licensing highwaymen (aside from following them from your house to their cars, which is a bad idea): record everything, do not give them any information, indicate that you will not comply. Any and all will usually send them packing.
All of these methods are coercive and rely on some combination of lying and physical intimidation. It is not becoming of a civilized institution, let alone the state broadcasting company.
Sky TV, for example, follows a subscription model. The BBC is also a “subscription” in the sense that the fee pays for the content, but that’s where the similarities end.
Sky does not pretend that its subscription is a “license” to watch its programmes, therefore implying that it is compulsory. It also does not charge its subscriptions for channels that are not available on their platform, e.g. you don’t pay Sky for Virgin Media, whereas you pay for the BBC channels even if you only watch ITV.
Sky don’t pretend they have detection vans that tour the neighborhood looking for dodgy Sky boxes. They don’t send personal goon squads to old ladies’ houses to extract money from them on commission. When you don’t pay for Sky, they simply cut you off. Job done.
Most importantly, subscription to Sky is voluntary, and not a requirement to buy for the simple act of watching television. TV Licensing is a threat to violence and therefore an act of coercion. If you don’t pay, you are fined. If you don’t pay the fine, you will be subject to the force of the state. At least, that is what they threaten.
Bad Value For Money
“It’s only £12.50 a month!” they say. When you break down the fee into monthly chunks, it doesn’t sound a lot, but when you factor in the cost versus gain for the average individual, it suffers by comparison to real subscription services. The price funds the programming from a handful of TV channels, news and radio stations. Yet there are AAA programmes produced by the BBC, such as Sherlock, that appear on other services that are outside funded. The highest quality programming is not covered by the license fee.
And all of this is in addition to other subscription services that people want to buy. The majority of support is on satellite television, therefore requiring an extra subscription fee. In effect, the license fee is first a funding device for the BBC, and also a barrier to watch Sky, Virgin or BT Sport.
The license fee system also creates perverse incentives and encourages waste on expenses. Profligate spenders within the BBC are not forced to pay for their mistakes.
It Violates The Purpose Of The Law
Not paying for a TV license when you watch TV is a criminal offense. Yet why how does it qualify as a crime? In order for there to be a crime, there needs to be an offender and offendee. Who is the victim of a non-payment of a TV license? As we have established, the TV License is not like any other subscription service. It doesn’t just cover the programming that it pays for, but is a prohibition on the watching of all television. It is, in essence, a shakedown.
The aggressor in this scenario is TV Licensing, and therefore non-payment is as much of a crime as refusing to give your wallet to a mugger. The purpose of the law is to establish justice, and it is clear in this scenario there is no justice in the TV Licensing system – it is merely extortion. The law shouldn’t be anywhere near the license fee.
Arguments For Its Existence
The TV license funds the BBC, so in general, people that support the BBC tend to agree with TV licensing. The general argument for the existence of the BBC is that it’s important to have a public broadcaster to represent the people’s interest. Those arguments I won’t deal with now. Let’s move forward, for the sake of this, assuming that we need a public broadcaster.
It’s not obvious that a public broadcaster needs a system like TV Licensing. The BBC is not the only state broadcaster in the world. For example, PBS in the United States is funded by taxation at the state and Federal level. If we assume that the BBC needs to be publicly funded, the government could use public funds from other sources, or impose a specific BBC tax. That would eliminate the need for TV Licensing as an organization, and the need for goons to threaten people.
Though some might say the fact that TV Licensing is independent, and not funded by taxation, is a good thing. I agree that less taxation is generally a good thing. Why not, then, let the BBC be a true subscription service where you have to opt-in? The intimidation then would be unnecessary as those who want to consume BBC programming would have to pay to receive the service.
This would probably reduce revenue for the BBC. In that case, it would actually improve the service as it would encourage directors to divert more spending to quality programming to entice more viewers and incentivize subscription.
Though if defenders insist that the BBC must be a purely public institution, then there’s no getting around the fact that non-consumers of the BBC will be compelled to pay for it. Why not then tax us and be done with it?
There is no moral or pragmatic argument for the existence of the TV License. Therefore, it follows that it must be abolished. What do we replace it with, then?
Apart from the above reasons why it might be better to tax it than have a separate TV Licensing monopoly, there is only one truly just means of funding the BBC: privately. Privatizing the BBC would:
- Eliminate the moral hazard of those who don’t consume the programming being forced to pay for it.
- Incentivize better use of funds.
- Compel the BBC to compete on the same level as everyone else
- Relieve the monetary stress and intimidation stress on the elderly and infirm.
- Promote a society of voluntarism rather than coercion
You can read more from James Smith on Think Liberty here.