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TV Licenced to Kill

Sunday, 12th August, 2001

After six weeks or so in the United States in the summer of 2000, I wasn't surprised in the slightest to arrive home to a stack of snail mail.

All the usual suspects were present, many of which had nothing to do with me whatsoever. I'm doing my best to carve this unwieldy bulk down to a more realistic size and my efforts have slowly been rewarded. Most of the unnecessary mail no longer arrives, dissuaded by my sending it all back prominently marked 'Deceased'. The exception to the rule, for there must always be one, has been the unending stream of material from the TV Licensing Authority.

This is a peculiarly English institution, and because I'm such an awkward cuss it has become a peculiar problem to me. You see, I don't watch television. In fact I've already watched more television on the plane from which I am writing than I have at home over the last few years.

Last year I owned a television set but I didn't watch television. It seemed a little excessive for me to pay �106 every year so as to suffer through the two hours or so of tedium that I bother with, so when I moved house I cancelled my licence. In doing so I seem to have joined some sort of hit list. These people can't leave me alone!

Ever since the relevant Act of Parliament in 1948, everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is required to buy a licence for the privilege of receiving broadcast signals. When I phoned the Authority to explain why I don't have a licence I asked the friendly young lady why it was required.

Most obviously it finances the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation. Auntie Beeb remains the world's most renowned quality producer of television, possibly because it has a guaranteed budget and so doesn't have to resort to prostituting its airtime to sell pantyliners and toilet duck. Other than that, it seems to collect our money in order to be able to collect our money. I kindly pointed out that if there wasn't a licence they wouldn't have to pay to administer, collect and enforce it, but I think the irony was lost on her.

I don't personally believe that the public should have to finance a tv station, but it does and it's the law and that's that. If you watch without a licence the ubiquitous 'they' may send a detector van round to sit outside your house and attempt to detect your receipt of a signal. If they succeed, then you're nicked, my beauty, and you'll have to pay a darned sight more than �106 per year. If you persist in your non-payment you may even be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure and no doubt you'll not just be paying the government but some 300 lb bodybuilder in the showers too.

Technically the licence is required only to receive television broadcast signals, not to own a television set. It's required if you have a tv capture card in your PC but isn't if your tv is used purely to watch pre-recorded videos. So I followed the advice given to me by the friendly young lady and ensured that my set was entirely untuned and was not connected to an aerial. That potential detector van wouldn't detect a signal in my house if it sat in my courtyard till the cows came home; and in the meantime I'd be able to put it to constructive use by stringing a washing line over to its antennae.

Naturally I thought this spelt the end of the saga. My details were updated on the databases of the Licensing Authority and if they wanted to try to detect a non-existent signal that was their own lookout. But no! Still I get the mail because they don't trust me. Their choice of words leaves me no alternative conclusion. it gets stronger with each successive mail.

Sometimes it's addressed to me personally: 'Your licence seems to have expired...' That's right, I cancelled it and told you why. Sometimes it's addressed to The Occupant of any or each of the three bedsits that used to constitute my house: I 'must own a tv licence...' Nuh uh. Not if I don't use the thing. And here is my problem in a nutshell.

Everyone and their dog has a television. It has become one of the basic human rights. It's why the hours of seven to eleven pm even exist. It is provided by a benificent God as the sole means by which kids and grannies are kept quiet, so as not to take up our valuable time.

How could we possibly not watch? Could we honestly live without hearing the Gospel According to Oprah; or gasping as David Beckham accidentally on purpose misses the ball and kicks someone in the nuts; or avoiding the humdrum routine of our lives by immersing outselves in the humdrum routine of our favourite soap? Surely we all have to watch - and heaven forbid that you should doubt that! It's OK to forget your wife's birthday, but shame on you if you forget what time 'Who Want to Be a Millionaire' is on tonight. That can lead to divorce.

It's got to the point where nobody is believed if they say that they don't spend six hours a night absorbing inanity. There are even billboards erected to name and shame: 'There are two houses in St Johns Road, HX4 without a tv licence,' they blast in a particularly public warning of trouble to come. Given that by some freak of bureaucratic tomfoolery my house is the sole occupant of its very own personal post code, I can easily imagine myself being supposedly named and shamed on the side of a bus. Maybe then I'll sue them for defamation of character.

At least last year I owned a television, but nowadays I don't even possess a set at all; as my ten year old nephew is now putting it to far better use than I was. Still, however, the mail doesn't let up.

The last letter sent, when translating from caged bureacratic language into pure English, says one thing: 'We don't believe a word you say, you lying scum.' Apparently they want to send an inspector round to my house to physically search for a television. I have nothing to hide, naturally, but I'll be damned if i'll pander to people who have the nerve to call me a liar.

I'm not sure of what powers they actually have in their arsenal, but I plan on finding out. While it is merely mildly annoying and therefore no big deal, still I would like this to stop. Technically I am being systematically harrassed and now the Licensing Authority intends to invade my privacy to an obscene degree. An Englishman's home is his castle, after all, and it should remain so, therefore my drawbridge will stay up. Am I allowed the use of burning oil nowadays?

I wonder what the new and all-powerful European Convention on Human Rights would have to say about this whole saga. Maybe I should find out...

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