Wednesday, April 17, 2024
HomeBBC WatchDavid Keighley’s BBC Watch: Antiquated TV poll tax is bound to end...

David Keighley’s BBC Watch: Antiquated TV poll tax is bound to end in courts, fines and jail


Surprise, surprise. The Daily Mail is filled with indignation that Capita, the company paid £58m a year to collect £3.8bn in licence revenue from the public, uses pressuring tactics.

An undercover investigation by the newspaper has ‘revealed’ that the 330-strong network of collectors are on a bonus scheme to secure the maximum number of convictions for non-payment – and will deploy underhand means to get into people’s homes so that they can gather the evidence to issue proceedings.

In their sights for such doorstep harassment are (if the figures are correct) half a million people a year – and that seems reasonable because licence fee non-payment convictions are running at about 180,000 annually.

MPs, such as Labour’s Chris Matheson, according to the Mail, are suitably aghast and are calling for ‘urgent action’ to protect the non-payers from Capita’s excesses.

But aren’t they protesting well after the horse has bolted? The same MPs at the end of last year willingly set in concrete for the next decade as part of the new BBC Charter the licence fee system, and thus endorsed the continuing criminalisation of tens of thousands of – mainly poor – evaders, including sending some of them to jail.

And why are MPs surprised? Any money collection system has to include sanctions for non-payers, and it could be argued that Capita, in trying to make its collection system as efficient and productive as possible in securing high conviction rate, is merely making good use of public money. Capita staff haven’t suddenly become monsters – it’s the system and the regime that’s to blame.

The real issue here is that it is ludicrous that the BBC – in an era when multiple sources of video and broadcasting are available – should continue to be paid for in this way.

This is an organisation that, because of its lavish public funding, is out of control in what it is broadcasting. The Corporation has effectively declared open, contemptuous war on the Presidency of Donald Trump, and is working as hard as it can to thwart Brexit and portray those who voted for it as stupid and uneducated.

MPs cannot have their cake and eat it. If they want to stop injustices in the licence-fee collection system, the way of doing so is to open up the BBC to competition by financing it through subscription. That way, it will also reform internally and become more in touch with public tastes and needs.

BBC director Tony Hall has meanwhile written to Capita, voicing platitudes that that public trust must be a cornerstone of the licence fee system, suggesting that the company is falling short in its enforcement policies and demanding that ‘vulnerable people’ must not targeted.

Such sentiments are delusional. The reality is that large numbers of non-payers have always and will always be in the ‘vulnerable’ category. Little reliable research has been conducted on this and most of it comes from the BBC itself. The National Audit Office has investigated, however, and concluded:

Areas with high evasion rates are most likely to have, for example, a higher than average proportion of younger people, low income households, and students and single parent families, and a level of County Court judgments 50 per cent above the national average.

At the same time, the system relies upon collectors persuading householders to let them into their homes so they can check properly that they both do not have a licence and do possess a TV set capable of receiving BBC services. They have no legal right of entry.

But in turn, this means in other words that the main goal of Capita’s staff is to pressure people to let them in. They are seeking out lines of least resistance – by definition, therefore, targeting the vulnerable.

(Image: James Cridland)

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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