Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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It’s so hard to say goodbye to the BBC


IN THE real world, cancelling a direct debit to a service provider would mean an end to the commercial relationship with that provider. If a person stops the automated monthly payment to Netflix or Amazon, it is a reasonable expectation that both providers will refuse any online requests to stream content to that person’s devices.

However the real world also contains the BBC.

I have previously written about how I cancelled my direct debit to TV Licensing, the outsourced revenue-collection arm of the BBC. I declared I would no longer watch BBC programmes, use iPlayer to stream BBC content, and cease watching any live video broadcast of any kind. In return I received a ‘no licence needed’ (NLN) confirmation. However, thanks to the ‘unique way the BBC is funded’, that was not an end to the matter (though it was partly my fault).

I had not been checking the account I used to pay the licence fee in sufficient detail. Therefore it was a surprise to discover that the BBC had been taking out double the amount stated on the TV licence document. When I cancelled my direct debit in July, I was paid up until December.

The BBC sent me a document to remind me of this, but it was not to say that they owed me money. No, it was to point out that if I wanted to keep watching the BBC and broadcast TV generally, I would have to start paying them again in January. This was despite my NLN declaration. The BBC’s database was having an attack of schizophrenia. Actually, their database seems to be programmed to be schizophrenic.

I telephoned TV Licensing using the number provided on this document. The call management system (CMS) uses voice recognition rather than keypad input, and I duly provided my name, postcode, licence number. The only relevant choice in the call menu was the ‘cancel’ option, which I took. Then the CMS told me all their lines were busy and hung up. I called again, repeated my details, and received the same information. I have worked in the CMS industry for a number of years, and this absence of queue management, wait time information, or callback options is amateurish, especially in an organisation that manages the licensing of 25million households, collecting over £3billion annually.

I had called in the mid-afternoon, so I decided to call first thing next morning. I was kept in a queue. There were no ‘attention retainers’ in the CMS (a recording where the caller is told ‘your call is important to us’ or the like), just the same music endlessly repeated. The CMS did not provide any queue information, so I did not know if I was the third or the thirtieth.

After more than half an hour, I got through to a human. The human acknowledged that the BBC owed me about £50. A second NLN was issued. To get my money back, I was told I had to complete a claim form. Unlike every other aspect of the licensing process, which is online, this form has to be downloaded, printed and posted in, although a blank form can be sent out for the unconnected or printerless. However it is also possible to use the online system to enter the details which will then be placed into the online document and made ready for downloading printing, signing and posting. The website stated that this was required only when evidence had to be provided for the claim. In my case there was no evidence; I was just stopping using the service. It seems clear that the BBC refuse to believe anyone would do this. There was a requirement to send back the original TV licence document as well. The form wanted to know my telephone number, although the notes on the back stated that this was not a requirement. Given how badly the BBC automates the handling of incoming calls, I had no intention of finding out how they automated outbound calls. I left that section blank.

This all seems an absurd half-cocked paper-based system in an era of e-commerce. The reason appears to be that there is actually more security required to access BBC iPlayer than there is to interact with the online element of TV Licensing. Fee-payers do not actually have an account with TV Licensing, such that they have a user ID or password to log on to the site. The reason for this is that the functionality of the TV Licensing website seems not to have been updated for thirteen years. While every other commercial website that handles money knows the year is 2020, the main source of BBC revenue still thinks it is 2007.

Given their appalling organisation, I took no chances and sent my form and licence using Special Delivery. I checked on the Royal Mail website and saw that it had been received and signed for.

For a month, nothing happened.

I telephoned the TV Licensing people again to find out what was going on. After waiting in a call queue for about forty minutes, I was told that because the offices had been closed for about a month, there was now a twelve-week backlog of cases. Cases? Yes, the details of every incoming refund claim form, even one generated online as outlined above, have to be keyed in to the BBC’s computers. The information is reviewed by some department or committee to confirm the validity of the claim, and if found valid a refund is issued. This is because other than no longer watching the BBC, there are other reasons to claim a refund, such as dying, moving into a care home, etc. The TV Licensing operation is based on the assumption that every residential address has a television, and that everyone uses that television to watch the BBC or live broadcasts. They have no dedicated system to manage NLN. I pointed out that in my case, no consideration was needed, all I was doing was stopping watching the BBC and the rest. That made no difference. I asked to speak to the person’s manager. I was put through to ‘customer services’. I have never thought of myself as a customer of the BBC, and if TV Licensing believes fee-payers are actually customers, then this is an epic exercise in self-deception.  I told the person I wanted my money back pronto, or I would take them to court. The person did not care.

It was then I turned to Twitter.

Businesses are afraid of Twitter, as they have to be on it, but a mis-step can go viral and the reputation of an established brand can be trashed within hours. This fear promotes irrational responses, as the Co-op recently found out. In the last month the Co-op quickly bowed to a demand by a pseudonymous account that they publicly declare their ceasing advertising with the Spectator because the account accused the Spectator of publishing transphobic content. The Spectator‘s chairman, Andrew Neil, then issued a perpetual advertising ban on the Co-op for daring to influence editorial policy. 

It appeared that the supine activity exhibited by the Co-op in a now-deleted tweet was actually against its own policy. In a rush to avert what is known as a twitterstorm, the Co-op had overreached themselves. People started declaring online they would henceforward boycott the Co-op, and bought subscriptions for the Spectator in support. The matter was amicably resolved when the chairmen of the two organisations got together.  

Media professionals estimated that the negative effect of bowing to a small coterie of activists outweighed by an order of magnitude any potential positive effect of doing so. The public are provably sick of wokery such as the BBC banning lyrics to Rule Britannia at the Proms. The fate of the Co-op’s social media team and the managers who made the wrong call is unclear.

So I declared to all of my 200 followers on Twitter that I would be taking TV Licensing to court in 30 days’ time, also making sure that TV Licensing’s Twitter account was aware.

I was contacted within minutes over Twitter by TV Licensing social media people, certainly a lot quicker than using the telephone, and the person online seemed more interested in my case than his colleague in ‘customer services’. Using direct messaging, I made my case. The online person said they would get back to me. I had decided to count down the days on Twitter until I made my court claim, and this seemed to have the desired effect. Within two days, I was advised that I would get the refund within a week or so, and received a letter acknowledging this.

Even this was not the end of the matter.

At the beginning of last month, I received another letter from TV Licensing telling me that I had no TV licence for my address, and that I needed to either transfer an existing licence or pay up for a new one. There was also mention that I could declare I did not need a licence, as well as a threat of criminal prosecution if I watched television without one. At this stage I had received two NLN acknowledgements. The letter was signed by a woman who believes herself to be a ‘customer services manager’. I would suggest she is misdescribed or overpaid.

I went back to Twitter, posting one of two NLNs, the threatening letter, and asking TV Licensing what was going on. In a direct message exchange, I was told that my refund was a ‘change’ in the database entry for my address and that this change had cancelled the NLN. Rather than cancel the change, a new NLN was applied. I am now the proud recipient of three NLN letters.

The BBC believes that it has customers and that licence fee payments are sales. This is stated in its official documents. Yet its sales communications all contain promises of prosecution, conviction, fines and, by implication, jail for non-payment. If my experience is multiplied by only 1 per cent of the BBC’s 25million ‘customers’, then the corporation is generating thousands of pieces of junk mail mostly loaded with threats.

What is clear is that the BBC’s ‘customer’ databases are a mess, and that the BBC is, in addition to clogging up magistrates’ courts, mainly with women on low incomes, clogging up the postal system.

There is welcome news that the licence fee is set to be decriminalised, but this probably means that the civil rather than criminal courts will now be assailed with an increased workload. Will it mean that the BBC will learn the true meaning of the words ‘sales’ and ‘customer’? I doubt it. The BBC is no longer this country’s national broadcaster. It is just another content provider. The content it provides is cloyingly awful or offensively ideological or both. The sooner it starts genuinely selling to people rather than virtue-broadcasting and incompetently threatening viewers and non-viewers, the better.

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Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan worked in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.

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