The Sham of TV License Fees

In the UK, like many countries, there is a Receiver License for owning a television. It is treated as a tax, and not paying it is a criminal offence. The money is collected by the BBC and paid into a Government Fund, and then passed to the BBC for services and programming. (The BBC claims to carry out electronic surveillance (without a warrant) on property to check for unauthorised TV usage (if indeed this tech exists). Despite what it may attempt, it has no right to enter homes or examine property.)

I think this is a joke. Taxing ownership of a television is like taxing ownership of a mobile phone or personal computer. (Before I go any further, let me say that I have no affiliations to any TV company and my only bias is against license fees.)

The reason a TV license exists now is simply because it always has done. The license was introduced for radios and then switched to TVs when they were invented. This was at a time when the BBC was the sole broadcaster in Britain, and license fees were necessary to maintain a national broadcasting service. I can agree with this in theory; it’s no different than paying a tax for services like police or the fire department – in other words, a modest tax is better than no TV at all.

That was the argument back then. What is it now? Why is it law to pay a “license” for owning a household electronic device for ONE broadcasting company, when there are so many out there? Why should the taxpayer be forced to pay for a “service” that they might not even use? And is it right to see the BBC as a service anymore anyway?

Here are some of the common arguments in favour of the license fee, taken directly from Wikipedia:

Supporters of the licence fee claim that it helps maintain a higher quality of programming on the BBC compared to its commercial rivals,

Does the BBC produce higher quality programmes than its rivals?? I don’t think so! But the point is it’s a matter of opinion, and hardly a convincing argument for a national tax!

… and allows the production of programmes that would otherwise not be commercially viable.

If this is right then it’s a fairly good reason, but then the BBC should limit its licence fee revenue to producing these kinds of programmes, which would also allow the fee to be significantly reduced. What kind of programmes does this include? And why doesn’t it stop the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, or Sky?

Some claim that it also leads to better programmes (and a reduced quantity and frequency of advertisements) on the commercial channels, as they seek to draw viewers/listeners away from the BBC’s output.

Better programmes? Personally, I hardly ever watch the BBC. I’m not denying there are good programmes, but are people saying the BBC has a monopoly on quality programming? Surely not. Usually, when the BBC shows a good TV show and it becomes incredibly popular, another bigger company comes along and buys the rights to it instead (e.g.: like Sky did with 24). But since Sky is a commercial company that has to work to earn its money, I haven’t got a problem with this.

The argument from quality is bogus anyway: since the BBC will receive TV license fees whether the taxpayers like it or not (!), then there is no necessary demand for a higher standard of programming; it’s not as though taxpayers can just opt out of the “service” forcing the BBC to improve quality.

Some critics claim that the licensing system interferes with the freedom to receive information, and contend that this is a contravention of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to Freedom of Expression). It should however be noted that the Convention allows for qualifications and restrictions on the Freedom of Expression, and many European countries have licence systems that are very similar to the UK’s.

This is a circular reasoning. Notice that the rationalisation is: other European countries do it too, so that makes it all right! The criticism is not even addressed!

Some regard it an anomaly that a person can be forced to pay the licence fee while not using the services it pays for. However, the licence is for using a television receiver, regardless of which channels are watched.

This again, is rubbish. If the license fee is for using a television receiver, then the license fee should be distributed between all broadcasting companies, and not collected by the government and given to the BBC.

Pretending that the tax is not directly for the BBC is gross dishonesty. Taxpayers are forced to give money to the government which is given to the BBC and no other broadcaster. Therefore the tax is to sustain the BBC and not for owning an electronic device. Of course, by calling it a TV license, the government and BBC are covered from consumers being able to “opt out” of receiving BBC programming and thereby avoiding the fee.

Some critics point out that viewers in much of the Republic of Ireland, Northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands also pick up terrestrial signals of the BBC, but do not pay a licence fee to watch BBC programmes. The counter-argument from the defenders of the system is that the same is true in reverse of viewers in most of Northern Ireland and parts of Wales, and also of viewers in the Channel Islands, who can watch Irish and French TV respectively without paying those countries’ TV licence fees, and nowadays national broadcasters from many countries are on satellite.

Yes, exactly! Is this supposed to be a counter-argument?? The fact that viewers outside the license “zone” can receive foreign signals and vice-versa is a matter of fact, and is hardly an argument in favour of a license fee! It’s basically like saying: ‘well you can get their signals and they can get yours, and it shouldn’t be that way, but it is, so we’ll call it even.’

In other words, people in other countries can watch the BBC for free but those who actually live in Britain have to pay for it! “But someone has to pay for it!” you might say. Well, that’s my point, who exactly should pay for it?

More recently the rise of multi-channel digital television has led to criticisms that the licence fee is unjustifiable on the basis both that minority interest programming can now be broadcast on specialist commercial channels and that the licence fee is currently funding a number of digital-only channels which many licence holders cannot access (for example BBC Three and BBC Four)[2]. This situation, however, is comparable to the introduction of the 625-line only BBC2 in 1964, which operators of existing 405-line television sets were unable to receive without upgrading to a 625-line or dual-standard set.

Again, this is not a counter-argument! It actually avoids the main argument against a license fee: paying for an unnecessary service to support one broadcaster over others. The defence offered above is: ‘well it’s happened in the past so it’s hard luck for those who don’t use it.’ What point exactly is the defence above supposed to be making? That those who can’t access these channels should do something about it, or they’ll be penalised??

…while a 2001 Ofcom report found that the vast majority of those it interviewed, including owners of digital television equipment, supported the principle of a licence fee funded public service broadcasting. The advantages of such funding listed by those interviewed included diversity…

What does that even mean?

…high quality

Rubbish.

Education

Then it should be funded like normal education policy by the government, or the fees limited to educational programming, even though this doesn’t stop other education and documentary channels.

Innovation

Because the BBC is the only broadcaster that is innovative of course.

Entertainment

Because the BBC is the only broadcaster that produces entertaining programmes of course.

Information

Wow. A Television Broadcaster that broadcasts information.

Original productions

Because the BBC is the only broadcaster that produces original programmes of course.

Pluralism

Who else but the BBC receives the revenue??

Accessibility

Then limit the license fee to this area, and only for subscribers.

Inclusion of minorities

Again, what does that even mean?

And free access.

But it’s not free is it?

Another reason cited is that the licence fee allows the BBC to retain independence from both commercial and political pressures.

Then why is the BBC allowed to compete with commercial companies for the rights to broadcast? For example, Sky have to pay from their own commercial pocket for the rights to broadcast a football match, whereas the BBC use taxpayers money to pay. Why should one broadcaster be governmentally endorsed against its rivals?

If the idea of the BBC is to keep it free from commercial pressure, then it should be an information and educational non-profit service only, and the license fee adjusted accordingly.

I see no evidence that the BBC is free from bias or more objective than any other broadcaster.

As for political pressures, forgive my naivety, but the BBC is a government-sponsored broadcaster; it is directly paid for by the state. This may very well subject it to political pressure from time to time when broadcasting opinions dissent against governmental ones. Either way, to actually use ‘freedom from political pressure’ as an argument in favour of the BBC seems preposterous to me.

(From here: “The government has rid itself of the BBC director general and chairman who defied Downing Street over Iraq. The BBC has never been such a handmaiden of government.”)

The government’s official response to a Downing Street Petition (the ‘justifications’ for which I have already examined) can he found here. (Notice the lack of explanation; the reply is simply: this is the way it is, therefore this is the way it is.)

There are three solutions:

1. The BBC should be a non-profit national information service only. If it chooses to supplement its programming by advertising or subscription fees, so much the better.

2. The BBC should be a subscription service, like Sky or NTL. This way, viewers can choose to pay for the BBC package, as they would make a free choice about owning any other entertainment package, and simply couldn’t pay for something unnecessary that they never use.

3. The BBC should be supported commercially, perhaps alongside subscription fees. (Like every other broadcaster that has to earn its money, pay its way, and maintain quality to prevent loss of business).

Unfortunately, the TV license is here. It is budgeted for, and there’s an entire institution built on it, which means that the government isn’t going to volunteer to scrap a tax if it thinks it can get away with it. Which of course, I’m not naive enough to object to: that’s how government and tax always works.

What I object to is taxpayers paying £135 a year to one broadcaster for an unnecessary service without the freedom to choose differently. I encourage readers in the UK to visit http://www.tvlicensing.biz/.

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8 Responses to “The Sham of TV License Fees”

  1. tobe38 Says:

    Excellent. Very well researched, and a thoroughly comprehensive refutation.

  2. lee Says:

    I totally agree with your arguement. I’m not particularly bothered about which of the three alternatives you suggest at the end should be implememted…so long as one of them is!

  3. Lefty Says:

    I agree,

    The BBC corporation acts just like any other commercial organisation, the only difference being, its all at my expense, (and yours).

    I Admin a group called (bbc products)on flickR this group shows with photographs that BBC programmes that are aired are infact adverts for the products that they sell including: Magazines, Books, Boardgames, Clothes, Toys, CD’s, DVD’s and much much more. The BBC even use roadside hoardings to advertise their products.

    http://www.flickr.com/groups/bbcproducts/

    everybody is welcome to join and to add their own pictures of BBC Products.

    Also

    My Space hosts the mother of all campaigns “abolish the TV Licence” so if you have a my space account you can show your support by adding the profile as a friend.

    http://www.myspace.com/bbccampaign

  4. Defiant Says:

    Just don’t speak to the TV Licence people (Capita Salesmen) and they can’t touch you.

    http://www.tvlicenceresistance.info

  5. evanescent Says:

    Cheers for the link Defiant!

  6. Tim Says:

    Well done! I have added your webpage to my favourites. I can’t believe that there is so much support to abolish the BBC tax. Let’s keep on. It has to be abolished soon!

  7. tazus Says:

    People!! are you living in the 21st century!!?? What’s wrong with you?
    you all know very well that the tv license, now days, is another lame excuse, for the government to raise funds from the poor us…yes it made sense in the 1930, 40, 50’s until the 1990… when in this country were just a few people and for a national tv station to run, the people needed to help out( and it made sense ), but now, we are at in the 21st century, battle of the fittest!! hello!! what ever happened with the right to free, uncensored information, the right to access this information freely and at whatever time you want??? we have the right to choose, a freedom of choice, there is not only the national tv station, we have other choices, if the national tv can not manage themselves than good luck and nice knowing you. But don’t ask the people to chip in, when we have so much choice.
    tv licensee? a licensee for a TV?? you realize the times we are living now are much different then the time that this law was issued!? is like that law in England where in some particular time of the day, on a particular street in London you could kill a Scott and get away with it. Yeah …That old!!
    You do realize that the national tv stations are making their monies from other sides and not the tv license …i.e. commercials…yeah a good example!! if I pay for a a national tv station to survive I expect that I am not going to be cluttered with people that are trying to sell me things that I don’t need.
    we should all stop paying this ridiculous tax!!

  8. evanescent Says:

    Thanks for the comment Tazus.

    All the arguments in the original article quite nicely explain why a TV license is ridiculous and unfair, and it was written before I identified as an Objectivist.

    As an Objectivist, the single greatest reason the TV license is absurd is because the forceable extraction of money from free individuals is a crime – no matter who does it, and no matter what it’s done for, whether it be healthcare, law enforcement, or a god-awful broadcasting company.


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