Following his electoral triumph, Boris Johnson has his eyes on the BBC licence fee. He would like to replace it eventually. His interim thought is to decriminalise non-payment.
This would certainly strike a blow for the most vulnerable in our society. Roughly 10 per cent of all prosecutions in magistrates’ courts are for licence fee non-payment. That is about 200,000 cases a year, a truly astonishing waste of time and money.
The human cost is worse. As I noticed when I was taken to court and fined £250 for refusing to pay my licence fee until the BBC sacked the obscene and cruel Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, most people charged with this offence are poor women, often single mothers. The television is one of their few pleasures. They probably watch little or no BBC programming on it, but the law says they (and all of us) must pay the £154.50 a year poll tax before they can legally watch their television.
All those famous BBC presenters and powerful executives should spend an afternoon in court to get a snapshot of these unhappy people being punished for failing to furnish them with their six-figure salaries (seven-figure in the case of Ross). There is a harshness in their situation to which the pen of Charles Dickens would do justice if he were still around this Christmas.
Behind all these court cases lies a massive apparatus of snooping, threat and pursuit. I have direct experience of this, too, because in my London flat – as opposed to my house in the country – I have no television. TV Licensing, the BBC’s fee-collection body, falsely assumes I am evading and writes me accusing letters demanding money. I have received 68 of them in the past five years. They contain messages saying things like “What to expect in court”, “Your property is now under investigation”, “Will you be in on 21 August?”. Sometimes these messages appear on the envelope to shame the recipient.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick, who is 90, recently sent me TV Licensing’s letter menacing him with a £1,000 fine for non-payment, although he has a licence which does not expire until the end of April next year. As a distinguished former Lord of Appeal, Lord Lloyd may be able to look after himself in matters of law. He says he has written the authority “a real stinker”. Now that the BBC has decided to resume fee collection from the over-75s, however, many elderly people will feel frightened by these warnings which mendaciously claim to have the force of law.