LBC's Nick Ferrari discussed the thorny subject of TV Licensing on his show earlier today.
TV Licensing is a trading name used by the companies contracted by the BBC to undertake the administration and enforcement of the TV licence system within the UK, Isle of Man and Channel Islands. The BBC, as statutory Television Licensing Authority, retains full legal responsibility for all aspects of TV Licensing.
Yesterday, for the first time in living memory, the ineffectual BBC Trust finally sprouted a pair of bollocks and upheld a complaint against TV Licensing.
The complaint related to TV Licensing's continual harassment of a man who had no legal need for a TV licence. As is often the case, that man had done his utmost to assist TV Licensing by volunteering the fact he did not require a TV licence. Despite his repeated efforts to set the record straight, TV Licensing continued to send its caustic and legally-deceptive correspondence. Of course the Trust couldn't quite choke out the words "harassment", "compensation" or "sorry", but the humility of its ruling was uncharacteristic and notable.
The Trust also criticised the tone of a now discontinued letter, in which TV Licensing threatened the use of debt-collectors against people who had defaulted on their TV licence fee payments. In typical cack-handed fashion, TV Licensing has used the same letter to threaten correctly licensed individuals even when no debt exists.
Ferrari's discussion was no doubt propagated by this unusual BBC Trust acknowledgement that BBC TV Licensing got it wrong.
Our noble colleague Mark, speaking on behalf of TV Licence Resistance, explained to Nick how up to 1,000 people a day are abandoning their £145.50 TV licences in favour of legally-licence-free viewing instead.
The segment is transcribed below:
Nick Ferrari (NF): 8.35 am. Do you pay your TV licence? Well of course you must. I would never for one second suggest you should not, but there is now an increasing weight to those who say "well you shouldn't".
The BBC will investigate claims that people have been sent threatening warning letters by the body responsible for collecting the TV licence fee. The company's called TV Licensing. You may recognise it from that fairly grim logo that goes at the top of their letters.
They enforce the annual £145.50 fee that we need to pay to get the BBC, or indeed anything else, otherwise we go to jail. And they've been accused of wrongly threatening some of the public with a referral to a debt-collection agency. That's the key. Do you have a letter such as that?
The BBC Trust initially rejected the complaint - no, really?! - after TV Licensing said it had made significant revisions to the letters. However, despite those assurances the complainant then received another letter and a phone call, threatening debt-collectors being brought in. How disgusting.
The BBC Trust's complaints and appeals board said it was not, in principle, acceptable for a fully licensed member of the public to be sent a letter warning of a referral to a debt-collection agency.
TV Licensing says the initial complaint had already been addressed by a review of these letters. They were changed in 2014. The complainant later set up a new licence, while their previous licence was still valid. When they missed their cash payments, letters (were sent) advising that they might be referred to debt-collection. This will only happen in a tiny number of cases. Dear oh dear.
Mark is with TV Licence Resistance. What can you tell us about these sorts of stories? Have you ever seen these letters Mark? Or some of your members? Morning.
Mark: Morning Nick. Yeah, absolutely. I mean to put this into some sort of the context the TV Licensing people, in a typical year, they send out 90 million letters. Okay?
NF: Right. Are these just simple reminders though, some of these?
Mark: Well, I suppose there are a small number that you could probably say "yes, it's a simple reminder" - about maybe 25-27 million of them are the actual licences that they send to people as well, but the remainder - something like 35-40 million letters a year - are basically threatening letters of various sorts that they send to, in the main, people who don't have licences. And obviously some of those people need a licence and some of them don't.
Mark: The days when TV Licensing is sending the letters, they don't know who's who. So, they send everyone the threats and invite people who don't need a licence to ignore them. It's kind of a strange way to do business we think.
NF: But hang on. If this was being done by another company, you'd see it on a BBC show such as Watchdog wouldn't you?
Mark: Yes, definitely. And it's a hallmark of the BBC's hypocrisy in this that they control a number of outlets for consumer journalism in the media and very, very rarely reported on any of those outlets - certainly it's never been on Watchdog - and you'd think it would be right up their street. People receiving threatening letters, incompetent use of databases, people going door to door and being economical with the truth - all those things, they're perfect for Watchdog. So I think really we should lay down the challenge to them that they ought to investigate.
NF: Lastly, this isn't obviously the death-throws, but is it the continuing demise of the TV licence would you say?
Mark: Yes. I think we're going to see more and more stories about the TV licence and TV Licensing in the run up to Charter renewal in 2016. And the latest, most important one from our point of view, is the story that 1,000 people a day are legitimately stopping paying the TV licence, because they don't need one any more.
NF: Sorry. In what way is that legitimate? Because what you've said to my view, that's illegal. So what are they doing?
Mark: No. No. You know a lot of people aren't watching television as such. What they're doing is they're watching individual programmes on catch-up services like iPlayer (NF: I see) or Netflix and that's perfectly legal.
NF: So hang on. Don't you need a licence in order to have the equipment to record a programme in the first place?
Mark: It's not recording. It's downloading over the internet.
NF: So to have a unit that actually plays the show out - I appreciate you're not doing it in real time - you don't need to have a licence to have a telly as long as you don't take current pictures is it? In very crude terms?
Mark: Absolutely right, yes.
NF: Mmm. Interesting.
Mark: It's an easy way to save £145.50 a year.
NF: It's got my vote! Did I actually say that? I don't know if I'm allowed to! Mark, you're with TV Licence Resistance.
If you have one of those letters let me know. It's over, isn't it? Let's be honest about it.
You talk to people in other countries - I always use this example - when I lived and worked in the US and I was working on television, so obviously you talk about TV, and they ask "so how does the BBC work?"... "well, you have to pay..." I think it was about £75 in those days... "why?"... "what, even if you just watch ITV and Sky?"... "yeah, that's right".
I remember this guy, a very bright, saying that that is ludicrous. "That would be like that you had to have a licence to use the freeways..." - which is like the motorways - "...but you only ever use the side roads. How on earth can that be justified?" And you say, "only in Britain". It is truly ridiculous, anachronistic, antediluvian and all the other long words that I never really know what they mean.
NF: Alright, let's go to this TV Licensing conversation. Emails coming in on that. I'll do a couple of those.
This comes in from Tony in Westgate: "In the past the BBC has been blowing a heck of a lot of its money on sending flowers to hired stars and celebrities. Why don't they just let Sky take it over, as if BBC programmes were scrambled hardly anyone would take a look at them."
And another Tony, this one in Great Yarmouth: "I owned a house, which was empty for 3 years. I got very offensive letters every three months saying that I was going to be taken to court and agents will come around and remove my property if I don't pay up.
"Each time I rang up and explained the situation they said I'd not hear from them again and then two months later I'd get the threats again."
Rob's in Mosely on this. What have you got to tell me Rob? "
Rob: Good morning Nick. How are you?
NF: I'm good sir. What can you tell me about this?
Rob: Right, in February we had a visit from a bailiff on behalf of TV Licensing.
NF: Oh yes?
Rob: Saying that we did not have a TV licence. I was at work at the time and my partner was at home. We had a TV licence set up on a Direct Debit on a rolling contract thing - you know, it automatically renews every year and we don't have to do anything about it.
NF: Yeah, yeah.
Rob: I'd had no letters from TV Licensing, nor my bank, saying there'd been any issues with the Direct Debit. This gentleman turns up, says we don't have a TV licence and he asked my partner if we did have one. She told him that as far as she was aware, "yes we do - my partner pays for it and we've had no letters". He said "thank you very much for your time" and that was it, he went.
Three weeks after that we had a letter through saying that we were being taken to court due to not having a TV licence. I phoned up TV Licensing and asked them "what's going on?" TV Licensing themselves didn't actually know that we were being taken to court. They said they had no idea about it.
NF: Ah. It had gone through to a debt-collection agency, had it?
Rob: Well, they put me through to their prosecutions department and they said "yes, we're aware, but don't worry - fill out the form..."
NF: And ultimately - I'm terribly sorry. I know you want to give us all the details and I'm grateful for that - but ultimately, how did it resolve itself? Because I've got so many other people waiting to talk and I've got other things.
Rob: It got taken to court. They said everything was going to be fine, but it turned out not to be. We got a £200 fine that we have to pay for not having a TV licence for twelve days.
NF: You have to pay that now?
NF: And you can't appeal it?
Rob: We've appealed it. They said they couldn't do anything about it because we didn't have a TV licence, even though we've got proof from TV Licensing themselves saying that there was no break in the TV licence. We have to pay this £200 fine.
NF: So you're just going to do it, are you? To get it out of the way?
Rob: We've got to. It's due at the end of next week. If we don't pay it it's just going to be more hassle that I can't afford and my family don't need.
NF: In a sentence - and remember there are children listening - what do you think?
Rob: I think it's absolutely disgusting the way it's us that has to suffer when, as quite a few people have already pointed out this morning, they're quite happy to spend their money on stuff they don't need. We weren't notified of a mistake and we're being punished.
NF: Rob, I think it's just one of those things. Put it down to life's rich tapestry. I'm very sorry for you. Thank you.