The TV Licensing staff are on strike due to a pay dispute. This seems as good a time as any to talk about the TV license and the notorious enforcement company, TV Licensing.
I am a big fan of the BBC. Although it feels like they have struggled to find the right balance in programming over the last few years, I still think the BBC is incredibly good value for money, and that a taxpayer-funded media service is hugely valuable to society.
Some of you may recall BBC promos like or “bbc news on your mobile“, “we believe in listening“, “new music“, and more overt TV license adverts like “bbc for small people“, “because of the unique way we are funded“, “what has the bbc ever given us“, “you make it what it is“, “vic and bob“, or “the complaints department“. I’d be surprised if you can watch all of those without at least one giving you goosebumps, without one of them making you smile. The BBC truly delivers world-class productions across a range of media. I think it’s terrific value for money and so I gladly pay the £145.50 annual fee.
So it’s bitterly disappointing that the BBC’s glorious reputation and legacy is tainted here in the UK by the thuggish and threatening behaviour of the TV license collection agency, “TV Licensing“. Here’s one example, my own experience with them.
TV Licensing know which properties contain TVs based on two sets of data: firstly, every retailer that sells TVs has to capture the address it will be used at; and secondly, an assumption that every address in the UK has a TV unless proven otherwise. They also claim to have “detector vans” that can tell when you’re watching live broadcast television.
I don’t watch live TV when I’m in Norwich (I plug in the laptop to watch films or to catch up on stuff via iPlayer), but I do occasionally watch live TV when I’m in London. So I switched my TV licence from the Norwich address to my London address, and I notified TV Licensing online that I don’t need a TV licence at the Norwich address, specifying that the TV there was used for watching non-live programmes.
This notification they subsequently acknowledged. Their acknowledgement, addressed to me and sent in March, stated:
Our records have been updated and you won’t receive any more letters from us for almost two years.
Unfortunately, within just three months, a threatening letter arrived on my doorstep, addressed to “The Present Occupier”, using language such as “it is illegal“, “you may later be prosecuted“, “taken to court“, “found guilty“, “maximum fine of £1000“. Remember – this is for an address where I have declared I don’t need a licence, and received an acknowledgement and a promise of two years of peace and quiet just a few months previously.
This was followed by a subsequent funereal letter telling me my details are being passed to enforcement officers. The message is deliberately threatening: the very name “enforcement officer” is designed to intimidate and lend legitimacy; again, language like “you are breaking the law“, “taken to court“, “fined up to £1000“, “visiting your area soon“, “may call at your home any time during the day or evening or at the weekend“, “enforcement visit“. And this is for an address that has been correctly and properly identified as not needing a licence via TV Licensing’s own website.
A month after that – the third month in a row I received a threatening letter, and barely 6 months after declaring the address does not need a licence, I get an official warning. The “Enforcement Officers are authorised to visit your address“, the letter tells me. Watching TV is “against the law“, “they may interview you under caution, in line with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act“, “the first step in a legal process“. Remember, it is not illegal to own a television, it is not illegal to use a television to watch content other than broadcast television, and there is no legal requirement to buy a TV licence in these circumstances.
And finally, within a few weeks of the Official Warning, I received yet another letter, this time addressed to “Legal Occupier” rather than “The Present Occupier”, and with a comparatively friendlier tone (“we want to help you get licensed so you can enjoy TV legally”).
Despite doing everything by the book by ensuring the property where I watch live TV is covered by a licence, and providing TV Licensing with notification that a licence is not needed for the other property, I have so far received four warning letters – three of which were incredibly threatening.
Sadly, this is not an isolated case. There’s a TV Licensing blog, a TV Licensing website, another TV Licensing website, forum postings, newspaper articles, blog posts, reports of heavy-handed behaviour, and hundreds of thousands of search results on the issue.
I never thought I’d say it, but Noel Edmonds is completely right.
As media consumption habits go through a period of dramatic change, it’s more important than ever that the BBC explains the value of the TV licence and keeps the licence-payers on side. But the behaviour of TV Licensing is so appalling that I fear future generations will learn to hate the BBC and the intimidation that comes from owning a television.