Crimewatch: When watching tv on your Mac is a crime

Posted on by Mike Evans

In Britain we have a rather archaic system whereby households containing a working television set are obliged to pay an annual "licence" fee for the privilege. These days there cannot be many households without a tv, so the Government duly collects £145 from all householders. Any householder brave enough to deny the presence of television is in danger of a mid-evening knock on the door from the Gestapo. This money goes to our venerable BBC so we can watch television and listen to radio without commercials. It's all very laudable and, on balance, most people appreciate the BBC's lack of interruption by advertisements. But technology moves on. 


Above: Ten bob a year in 1922 for daring to own one of these

Now, the BBC fears, awkward consumers will be tempted to ditch their televisions and rely on computers for watching on-demand stuff like the excellent BBC iPlayer. Whether or not they are breaking the law is in dispute, although it seems that some unfortunates have been prosecuted and fined £1,000 (plus a criminal record) for the heinous crime of viewing on a computer. The UK Government accepts that over time new technology will erode the licence fee income and there have been suggestions of alternative ways of collection - such as a tax on the sale of new computers.

Since starting the licence fee system in 1922 (ten shillings or 50p a year - equivalent to £21 on the retail price index or £90 on average earnings index) the BBC has reacted to other technical innovations by bumping up fees. Originally, the licence was for radio, then came television and, later, colour television (anyone still watching an ancient monochrome television receiver gets away with £49 a year even today).

Much as I like and value the BBC, this sort of direct taxation (on top of all the other taxes we pay) is anachronistic and should be dismantled rather than patched up to accommodate every technical advance. I for one would be very much against a tax on computers just because it is technically possible to use them to receive TV signals. In the vast majority of households they are just another appliance and should be covered by the main television licence fee. 

I used to think, fondly, that the UK was unique in collecting broadcasting fees in this way; at least we do have one of the finest non-commercial services in the world. But a quick glance at Wikipedia gives the lie. There are currently 37 countries which have some form of licence fee, although methods of collection vary. In Greece (where I am writing this post) for instance, it is collected as a supplement to electricity bills with €52 being added annually to every electricity account, including accounts of all businesses. I need hardly mention that what passes for public broadcasting in Greece is hardly the BBC.

Encouragingly, ten countries in the world (including Australia) have already abolished the licence while a further 14, including the USA, have never had a licence fee. How much are you happy to pay for the BBC and would you welcome a tax on computer sales?

Source: The Daily Telegraph, one of the few national newspapers we can still read online for free; no Murdoch tax yet.

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