Charles Moore went to court for refusing to buy a TV licence and discovered that the corporation has no mercy
Yesterday, at Hastings magistrates' court, I was found guilty of "using a colour television receiver without a licence", and fined £262. My opponents, TV Licensing, argued that my offence was "absolute" and had "no mental element", which is lawyer-speak for saying that my reasons for refusing to pay were irrelevant. I had refused: therefore I was guilty. The magistrates, though they kindly fined me only a quarter of the maximum penalty, agreed.
This saga began in October 2008, when BBC Radio 2 broadcast, on The Russell Brand Show, a sequence in which Brand and his guest, Jonathan Ross, made several obscene and threatening telephone calls to the answering machine of the elderly actor Andrew Sachs. The calls were about how Brand had slept with Sachs's granddaughter. The chief theme of the "prank" – as its defenders liked to call it – was the humiliation of hearing about your granddaughter's sex life, and of the public hearing it, too.
As shocking as the programme itself was the BBC's reaction to it. Instead of admitting at once that something had gone terribly wrong, the corporation defended it. Only after 11 days did Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, issue an apology. Eventually, an investigation by the BBC Trust called the programme "grossly offensive" and "an abuse of the privilege granted the BBC". Various editors resigned, but Ross, who was suspended for three months, did not.
The question was, how to protest. Normally, if you don't like a service or a political party, you can at least withdraw your custom and choose another. With the BBC, there is no such option. Anyone who owns a television and watches live programmes on it (even if he or she never switches on the BBC) must pay the annual licence fee of £142.50, which goes wholly to the BBC.
So disobedience seemed the logical response. I explained in this newspaper that, when my licence came up for renewal, I would pay the sum instead to Help the Aged, out of respect for Andrew Sachs. Until Ross was sacked, I would keep my television and go on watching it.
When my renewal came up, I wrote to TV Licensing to explain my position. They replied that a television licence was a "legal permission", not "a payment for services from broadcasters". In other words, I had no rights.
After that, the wheels turned slowly. But, in early December of last year, two burly men, looking like ex-policemen, arrived at my London flat. I was surprised, since I do not have a television there. The unlicensed television which was bothering them is at our house in Sussex. I said I did not have time to see the two gentlemen from TV Licensing then and there, so they came down to Sussex to interview me under caution. Eventually, I was summoned to court.
At around the turn of the year, it was announced that Ross would leave the corporation when his contract expired in July this year. So this was a belated victory for us protesters, but I still did not want to pay any money to the BBC so long as any of it would end up with Ross. As I explained to the magistrates yesterday, I shall renew my licence after he leaves in two months' time.
During this process, I learnt some interesting things. The first is that TV Licensing, which calls itself an "authority", is no such thing. It is simply a part of the BBC. It has no legal powers. When you get its nasty letters, it implies that it has the right to enter your premises or force you to answer its questions. It does not. If you do not reply to its inquiries, there is very little it can do.
As I exercised my "mental element" (see above) to reflect on the licence fee, it struck me more and more strongly how weird it is that in a free society we have to pay money to a particular corporation before we are allowed to watch the telly in our own homes.
There is interesting case law – particularly a case called Darby vs Sweden – which suggests that this strange tax is against the European Convention of Human Rights. Article Nine of the convention says: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." One's freedom of conscience is surely compromised by a law which compulsorily funds the BBC so that it can propagate its beliefs.
It was against my conscience, I told the magistrates, to be made to pay for the weird ideology which thinks that cruel jokes by Ross are justified because they "push the boundaries". This would be a good matter to test in the High Court.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing I have discovered over the past 20 months is the vast tide of small-scale human misery which the licence fee causes. In 2008-09, there were 168,800 prosecutions for licence-fee evasion. That is nearly 15 per cent of all prosecutions. Almost all the people charged are poor. The telly is one of their few pleasures, and they tend not to watch the BBC on it. And yet, for want of £142.50, tens of thousands clog up the courts every year.
Yesterday in Hastings, a young single mother was tried for the same offence as mine. She had a baby in a pushchair, and I agreed with the clerk to let her case go first, so that she could get out in time to fetch her other children out of school. I can see no justice and no humour in a situation where people like her are punished, so that people like Ross can get his £6 million.
In: Regional News, Other News, WTF
Tags: bbc, lies, deceipt, corruption, courts,
Location: United Kingdom (UK/GB) (load item map)
Marked as: approved
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