The BBC license fee: Should it be a crime not to pay?
If the current license system and its related enforcement mechanisms were to be suggested today for the first time, we’d think the proposers had lost their minds
It used to be that the two Great British national sports were to moan about the trains being late and complain about the weather. It seems that in this era where every water cooler conversation begins with a comment about the latest scandal to envelope the BBC, complaining about Auntie has become the new national pastime.
Hence, whenever the BBC Royal Charter comes up for renewal, the inevitable tittle-tattle about whether it should be. In short, should we have a national public broadcaster paid for by the modern equivalent of a poll tax?
The more pressing question though must be whether it is acceptable for those who do not pay their license fee to be prosecuted in the courts. No public utility entity has the power to criminalise a member of the public for non-payment of a bill. The legal system doesn’t allow Thames Water or EDF, for example – which provide valuable essential services – to take you to a magistrates’ court and potentially have you fined up to a thousand pounds through the force of the criminal law.
Public utility companies can take you to the County Court or obtain warrants in the magistrates to cut off your supplies but only the BBC (or its TV licensing arm) can actually have you summonsed to the criminal courts for non-payment of mere entertainment bills.
Aside from clogging up the underfunded courts system, such a draconian measure is wholly untenable in an age when we obtain our entertainment and indeed education not just from Auntie herself but dozens of other media outlets without this state-appointed authority.
To give the Beeb special prerogative powers to have you fined with that added fear of an appearance before a bench of Beaks is unacceptable. Just imagine if the current license system and its related enforcement mechanisms were to be suggested today for the first time. We’d think the proposers had lost their minds.
As a start not paying the license fee should be a civil wrong. There should be no mention of prosecutions. There should be no threatening letters from the state-funded TV Licensing bureau. This offence should be decriminalised and dealt with through a different legal and procedural avenue.
No first world country with a free, vibrant press and with the increasing use of the internet for the viewing of television should tolerate summonsing citizens to court in order to pay their TV licenses (plus, I suppose, a small part of George Entwhistle’s £450,000 pay off).
Julian Hunt is a barrister and has been practicing law since 2005. He was a Crown Prosecutor and Senior Crown Prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service between 2008 and 2011 but now defends. He lives in South London
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