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The British TV licence – possibly the dumbest thing on earth

November 22nd, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Don’t get me wrong, I love the charming conservatism of the British nation. I like how milk is sold in 1.136L cartons because you can decimalise the pint but you can’t kill it. I like quaint holdovers like the House of Lords and the Royal Family. I love the way central London is peppered with garden squares instead of Westfields. I enjoy traditional pomp like the Lord Mayor’s Show or Trooping the Colours. It makes me smile when I hear peculiar pronunciations unpolluted by American verbal hegemony, like “Pantene” pronounced as “Pan-ten”, “Dae-woo” pronounced as “Day-oo”, or “vit-amins” instead of “vite-amins”.

The TV licence system, however, is retarded. It is not unique to Britain – some other European countries have also retained it. The British, however, have managed to run the system in such a way as to make it, frankly, ridiculous.

First, a brief explanation of the TV licence itself for those of us unfamiliar with such a backward system. Every year, each household which uses a television to receive TV broadcasts (whether directly or recorded) is required to pay a licence fee, currently £145.50 per year for a colour TV. The fee makes up the majority of the BBC’s funding, with the rest coming from commercial arrangements and topped up by government.

The licence fee system is fundamentally unfair. It falls disproportionately on the young, because it is imposed by household, meaning that a single person household is taxed (it is legally a tax) at the same amount as a large family. It falls disproportionately on working people, because it is a set fee, not “pay per view”. This means that a household is required to pay the same fee if they watch even 5 minutes of television when they get home from work, as someone who has the television available to them at all times. It falls disproportionately on the poor, because it discounts the number of television sets in a household. Someone with just one TV between a family of six pays the same licence fee as a household with a TV in every room. Finally, of course, the tax is a set amount, not means tested and not income-progressive, and so it falls disproportionately on those with a lower income. £145.50 is not a small sum – it’s about $250-300 (depending on exchange rates), quite a bit to save up in austerity Britain.

By now you can probably imagine what kind of person benefits most from such a system – someone called Lord Faroutford who has bred like a rabbit, lives in a palatial mansion, has a stack of servants, and who doesn’t need a day job. In other words, the tax is exactly the kind of class oppression you’d expect from the kind of government loaded in favour of the rich and the landed that gave us rotten boroughs or corn laws. Not what you’d expect from a country that brands itself a liberal democracy. Even if we presuppose the necessity of maintaining a public broadcaster not funded by advertising, it is far fairer to fund said broadcaster out of consolidated government revenue funded primarily by a progressive tax system with a primarily individual-based tax unit.

What makes the British system especially ridiculous, though, is the tactics of quasi-legal intimidation it employs to make people pay up. The TV licence system is backed by a joke of an enforcement system. At some point, the government must have realised that, unlike electricity, you can’t actually cut someone off from receiving television broadcasts out of the air. It can criminalise unlicensed TV viewing, but the only way to obtain evidence of this in most cases would mean invading personal privacy. Not a problem at all, of course, for Lord Faroutford, for whom the local constable would have to knock cap-in-hand at his gate for permission to walk up his mile-long driveway and then ask to inspect his television. But even for your average Joe (or whatever they call it in Britain. The man on the Clapham omnibus?), it really isn’t much of a problem if you keep your wits about you and don’t open your door to someone who says they are here about your TV licence. So enforcement generally means sending threatening letters about the heinous crime you are committing by stealing TV signals out of the air, and how they will rip you apart if you gave them a chance. If the system was vicious before, the toothless intimidation makes it absurd.

To add insult to injury, the other day I clicked on a link hosted at http://www.bbc.com/, and it told me – and I will quote it verbatim because it is almost Kafkaesque:-

We’re sorry but this site is not accessible from the UK as it is part of our international service and is not funded by the licence fee. It is run commercially by BBC Worldwide, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the BBC, the profits made from it go back to BBC programme-makers to help fund great new BBC programmes. You can find out more about BBC Worldwide and its digital activities at www.bbcworldwide.com

So let me get this straight. Because I have to pay an exorbitant and unfair tax that would not exist in any civilised democracy – because of this tax, I am blocked from accessing content provided for free by the very broadcaster I am helping to fund, content that is free to access by anyone who doesn’t have to pay this tax?

It boggles the mind.

  1. January 27th, 2012 at 04:14 | #1

    Hilarious. Read Theodore Dalrymple for further insights into the dark corners of British society: http://www.city-journal.org/author_index.php?author=47

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