News and Comment


26th April 2017 — Public Accounts Committee — BBC Licence Fee report

The Public Accounts Committee report on the BBC licence fee published on 24th April 2017 together with the associated evidence from the BBC and Capita makes interesting reading but it doesn’t really get to grips with the basic problem of the unenforceability of the licence fee or the chaotic incompetence at the BBC.

  1. Licence Evasion

  2. The report notes the BBC’s estimated evasion rate of between 6.2% and 7.2% and notes Capita’s poor performance in catching evaders, 18% fewer than in 2010/2011 despite making more home visits.

  3. However the only provision for TV licence fee enforcement in the 2003 Communications Act is for the BBC to request magistrates for a search warrant. These are very rare, with only 167 being granted in 2014/2015 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and none in Scotland. The rest of their enforcement activities, the annual 51.8 million direct individual mailings (aka 'threatograms'), emails and phone calls, and the home visits by Capita's henchmen, have no legal basis and is just bluster amounting at times to harassment. So the licence fee is basically unenforceable. The government should recognise this and move the BBC to a subscription model as recommended in 1986 by the Peacock Report.

  4. Gender Disparity in Prosecutions

  5. The report recognises that 70% of people prosecuted for not having a TV licence are female and notes the DCMS and the BBC are looking into the reasons for this disparity. Their review has been underway since 2015 with no current completion date so it’s hardly at the top of their to do list. The Committee has now recommended they progress the review and report back within three months of its completion with the review results and action plan. But note crucially, they haven’t been given a timescale to complete the review so don’t be surprised for this to be further dragged out.

  6. Payment Surcharges

  7. The Committee were quite surprised that the BBC makes £16 million annually on the £5 surcharge they impose on people paying by quarterly direct debit. They recommend the DCMS should review the situation. But the Committee makes no mention of the extortionate amount people have to pay for even shorter scale licence fee payments. For example someone paying weekly pays ‘around’ £6 per week, amounting to £312 for a licence which would cost £147 if paid annually. Granted that on weekly payments the first year’s licence is paid for in the first 26 weeks after which the scheme is moved to fortnightly payments, people paying weekly are likely to be struggling on a day to day basis so there can be no excuse for the BBC to exploit them in this way. Why can’t someone on weekly payments just be asked to pay £2.83 a week?

  8. IT Systems

  9. The Committee noted that the BBC has been trying to update the TV licence database since 2002, has failed to do so, and still does not have a clear plan on how to replace it. But the BBC is hopeless at IT, as evidenced by the £98 million write off caused by the abandoned Digital Media Initiative project. However the Committee simply recommends the BBC should establish fresh plans to update its IT systems and advise the Committee accordingly. But given the BBC’s track record, it’s highly unlikely they have the expertise to do this. A more appropriate immediate course of action would be for a review to be undertaken by an external consultancy of the BBC’s IT executive management, governance, project management, and implementation expertise.


2nd March 2017 — BBC – Beware The Ides of March

It’s not been good news for the BBC over the last few days.

The run of bad PR started with an article in the Daily Mail on 26th February. The Mail had sent an undercover reporter for an interview at Capita for a job as one of their door to door TV licence ‘enforcement officers’. The bogus applicant filmed the interview which the Mail posted on line with their article. The results are pretty damming of Capita and hence the BBC via TV Licensing on the way the whole TV licence fee collection operation works.

The BBC responded initially with a simple press release on 26th March 2017 which just looks like a load of whitewash blaming everything on Capita.

But clearly not enough whitewash, and obviously under pressure, Tony Hall, the BBC’s Director-General, felt he had to respond personally. His letter to Andy Parker,  Capita’s chief executive, on 27th February 2017, is remarkable. Shedding crocodile tears, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, denies all knowledge of how Capita operates and demands an explanation.

Now, it would be remarkable if the BBC has no knowledge of the shenanigans going on in Capita’s TV licence fee collection operation. There is enough information in the public domain to raise serious concerns. So Tony Hall should resign for simply not doing his job. But then again the BBC managed to turn a blind eye to Jimmy Savil’s paedophilic activities for years.

But maybe the BBC really weren’t aware of how Capita is operating. But this is an outsource contract worth £58.6 million in 2015/16. So it looks like the BBC has no idea of how that contract is operating, and Tony Hall is effectively saying he is totally incapable of operating such an outsource contract. He should either resign, or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport should sack him and replace him with someone who can successfully run a behemoth international media company which is what the BBC has morphed into.

And more. Under pressure from the City over Capita’s poor financial performance as it dropped out of the FTSE 100, Andy Parker announced his resignation on 2nd March 2017. It does make one wonder what contribution this poor financial performance has made to their aggressive exploitation of the BBC contract.

And finally. On top of all this bad PR for the BBC, the government has announced that the TV licence fee will increase in line with inflation from £145.50 to £147.00 annually on 1st April 2017. Although the fee has been frozen since 2010, this increase coming on top of recent Brexit driven inflation will inevitable lead to further TV licence cancellations, Capita harassment of non-payers and an increase in resulting prosecutions.


3rd February 2017 — National Audit Office report on TV Licensing

The latest report by the National Audit Office (NAO) on the BBC’s TV licence fee collection activities examining whether they represent value for money makes interesting reading.

Although licence fee revenue collected has risen from £3.51 billion in 2010-11 to £3.74 billion in 2015-16, the evasion rates must be giving the BBC management considerable grief. The BBC has had to recalculate these statistics as the number of households with televisions has been underreported since 2012. Evasion rates are now quoted as between 6.2% and 7.2% with a figure of 10% reported for Scotland. Moreover, the number of evaders being caught has fallen by 18% between 2010-11 and 2015-16.

The reasons given by the BBC for these high evasion rates are quite frankly hilarious:

  1. They claim that social media sites have been successful at educating the public into the non-existent rights of Capita’s ‘Enforcement Officers’ so people are more inclined to just tell such callers to simply go away.

  2. Capita are understaffed with ‘Enforcement Officers’ because more of them left than were recruited between March 2015 and June 2016.

  3. The position in Scotland is explained away because Scotland has a more robust legal system than England and Wales, and so the BBC just can’t independently prosecute suspected evaders.

  4. In their TV licensing report of 2002, the NAO noted that the BBC planned to upgrade its main TV licence database so that it would be customer rather than address centric. In the current report it appears the BBC has still been unable to undertake this upgrade which is hindering licence fee collection efforts.

The BBC Trust has glossed over these issues and are just dumping the situation onto the new BBC board when it comes into effect in April 2017 and when the trust will be disbanded.

But in a wider context the NAO report really highlights the unsustainability of the current TV licence environment: In the digital internet age, what other industry depends on agents trudging round housing estates, knocking on doors to collect its revenue? The difficulty Capita has of recruiting and keeping field staff just highlights what a thankless task that is.

If the government commissioned Peacock report of 1986 had been implemented the BBC would now be on a subscription basis. There was a golden opportunity to do this during the switch over to digital television but again the BBC and the government flunked it.

The BBC’s lack of strategic planning and incompetent management is highlighted by the continuing failure to upgrade its core IT systems. 15 years to upgrade a database and still fail to do so? But the BBC is hopeless at IT—as evidenced by the failed Digital Media Initiative project which resulted in £98.4 million of licence fee payers money being wasted.


28th January 2017 — New option of Conditional Discharge for TV licence evasion

The Sentencing Council for England and Wales has recommended that an additional penalty option should be introduced for the lowest culpability category of TV licence evaders. From 24th April 2017 offenders who may not have a licence due to accidental oversight etc can be let off with a conditional discharge.

This is a welcome change from being fined under the current guidelines. Magistrates have been complaining about TV licence related prosecutions for years, so it will be interesting going forward how many offenders will be dismissed with a conditional discharge.

These changes do not apply in Scotland where the majority of such cases are handled out of court by way of a fiscal fine which does not attract a criminal record. 


14th September 2016 — Sci-Fi Detector Vans, Update

We mentioned in the note of 7th August that we had requested further information from the BBC about their alleged Wi-Fi detection vans as published in various newspapers, notably the Telegraph.

The BBC has now replied, basically confirming that the whole story was a scam and they have no such detection capability. The letter says:

  1. Please be advised that on 7th August 2016 the BBC released a statement on its BBC Press Office Twitter feed concerning inaccurate press reports about TV Licensing and watching BBC iPlayer. As per the tweet, which can be viewed online at https://twitter.com/bbcpress/status/762218984938889216, I can confirm that TV Licensing detection technology does not involve capturing data from private Wi-Fi networks. The erroneous information about TV Licensing’s detection equipment was an article published by the press rather than being the result of a BBC or TV Licensing press release.

  2. In view of the above, I can confirm under section 1(1) of the Act that we do not hold any recorded information relevant to your request.

So there it is. A classic silly season newspaper scam. But we are still waiting for a response from the independent Press Standards Organisation about the original article published in the Telegraph …


7th August 2016 — Sci-Fi Detector Vans

There has been much publicity in the press over the weekend about how the BBC will detect unlicensed viewers watching iPlayer programmes on computers, phones etc.

For example the Telegraph published an article on 6th August 2016 saying that the BBC will launch a fleet of vans equipped with Wi-Fi detection capability to catch such people. They based their claims on a report published by the National Audit Office, British Broadcasting Corporation Television Licence fee Trust Statement for the Year Ending 31 March 2016

However the report includes no evidence that the BBC will launch a new fleet of vans with such capability. In fact the report says:

  1. 1.19 The BBC views the number of people watching TV on a non-TV device as too small to warrant a specific strategy to tackle evasion using new technology.

So the BBC are stating they will not deploy new technology to detect iPlayer users.

What the report does say in paragraph 1.37:

  1. TVL detection vans can identify viewing on a non-TV device in the same way they can detect viewing on a television set. BBC staff were able to demonstrate this to my staff in controlled conditions sufficient for us to be confident that they could detect viewing on a range of nonTV devices.

The current way of detecting televisions is to focus a high powered lens on someone’s window, then compare the red–green–blue light fluctuations with those of actual broadcasts—a technique that the BBC is confirming also works for non-TV devices. The report does not mention anywhere that the BBC will use Wi-Fi sniffing technology to detect iPlayer users.

Due to the amount of privacy related concern generated in social media, the BBC press office subsequently issued a statement on twitter:



The weight of evidence from the NAO report would indicate the press release is accurate. But is there more to it than that? It is curious that similar newspaper articles also appeared in the Times, Mail, and Mirror newspapers at much the same time.

It therefore does look like one of the BBC’s public relations agencies has issued a garbled press release which has been misinterpreted by the newspapers for what ever reason. So we have issued an FOI request to the BBC requesting sight of that press release, and also sent a press complaint about the Telegraph article to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).

In the meantime, these are just classic silly season press articles, especially as Patrick Foster who wrote the Telegraph one has now disappeared on holiday until the 22nd August. And now Jasper Jackson has waded into the fray with an article in the Grauniad quoting the BBC press release without even reading it, and attempting to ridicule “an  extremist wing of anti-TV licensing Twitter”. Quelle absurdité.


1st August 2016 — BBC iPlayer viewing will require a TV licence

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has published their promised legislation to ‘update’ the television licence to include on-demand iPlayer viewing.

The neatly named ‘The Communications (Television Licensing)(Amendment) Regulations 2016was published on 7th July and will become effective on 1st September with no parliamentary overview of this significant change.

The relevant section applying to UK users of iPlayer is:

  1. Amendment of regulation 9
    6.
    —(1) In regulation 9 (meaning of “television receiver”)(c), for paragraph (1) substitute—

  2. “(1) Subject to paragraph (2), in Part 4 of the Act (licensing of TV reception), “television receiver” means any apparatus installed or used for the purpose of receiving (whether by means of wireless telegraphy or otherwise)—

  3. (a)  any television programme service, or

  4. (b)  an on-demand programme service which is provided by the BBC,

  5. whether or not the apparatus is installed or used for any other purpose.”. 

As much on-demand viewing would be done on some sort of computer device, the legislation is virtually impossible to enforce. So there will inevitably be an escalation in the harassment of licence free households by TV Licensing, whether it be by letter or home visits, especially when without specific RIPA authorisation there is no way CAPITA can inspect anyone’s computer. The legislation is also unique in that for the first time it differentiates between material broadcast by the BBC and say ITV, channel 4 etc, leading to further potential aggression and harassment by the CAPITA home visit salesmen.

There does not appear to have been any parliamentary discussion of alternatives. For instance the most effective method could be to have a user name and password linked to a specific TV licence to access on-demand programmes. Such a scheme probably wouldn’t even need a legislative change and would be self-enforcing.  

Surely the most appropriate time to introduce such legislation would be with the new Royal Charter? Are the BBC’s finances so fragile that the potential extra licences sold between September and December would make a significant difference to their accounts? The whole thing looks like a knee jerk reaction by John Whittingdale, under pressure from the BBC, post Brexit, and his inevitable sacking by Theresa May on 14th July.

Post the Scottish independence referendum and now the geopolitical mayhem following the Brexit vote, the government would be better employed developing a coherent strategy on how to bring the BBC into the 21st century. By contrast, this latest piece of tinkering with the anachronistic television licence looks like the old ‘lipstick on a pig’ metaphor.


16th July 2016 — John Whittingdale sacked

Speculation about John Whittingdale’s future in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (see entry of 26th March 2016) has been crystallized by the appointment of Karen Bradley as culture secretary in Theresa May’s first cabinet. What this means for the new BBC Royal Charter is currently unknown as Karen has no obvious prior experience in the broadcasting sector. But with parliament starting its summer recess in a few days time, and the huge amount of brexit work facing the government, it will be no surprise if the current charter is simply renewed for maybe another year or so rather than create and then seek approval for a new one by the end of 2016.


24th June 2016 — BBC Royal Charter white paper

The government’s white paper on the next BBC royal charter, A BBC for the future: a broadcaster of distinction, was published on 12th May 2016. In effect the paper contains little that is not already in the public domain because of what seem like deliberate leaks to gauge possible reaction. The main points of the paper include:

  1. There is an intent to separate future charter renewals from the election cycle by making the next charter last for 11 years. Whether this will happen or not is a good question—the results of the Brexit referendum could well trigger an early general election due to the likely ensuing geopolitical mayhem.

  2. There is no effective discussion of converting the BBC’s constitution from the arcane structure of a Royal Charter into a statutory corporation as has been previously recommended by both the House of Lords Select Committee on the BBC’s Charter Review, and the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee. All the paper says is that there is ‘continued support among both industry stakeholders and the general public for maintaining the Royal Charter’, and that the BBC Trust also supports that view.

  3. A significant proposal is to replace both the BBC Executive Board and the BBC Trust with a new unitary board and appoint OFCOM as the BBC’s regulator. 50% of the new board will be appointed by the government and 50% by the BBC, with the Privy Council having a final say on all appointments. This will clearly provide opportunities for the government to interfere with the BBC’s ongoing business rather than setting it up as a truly independent organisation.

  4. In section 6 titled ‘Ensuring a modern, sustainable, funding model’ the paper recommends the current licence fee system be continued with a few changes, such as bringing iPlayer within the scope of the licence, and allowing the BBC to explore other additional potential revenue streams such as an element of subscription. The use of the word ‘sustainable’ in this context is ironic given that John Whittingdale is on record as saying the licence fee is ‘worse than the poll tax’ and is ‘unsustainable’ in the long term.

    The issue of how best to finance the BBC was comprehensively addressed by Alan Peacock in his Report of the Committee on Financing the BBC published in 1986. This review recommended that BBC television should be transitioned to a subscription service by the year 2000. Needless to say, this recommendation was not adopted by the government, hence the ongoing fiddling with the hopeless task of making the licence fee workable.

  5. It is disappointing that the paper makes no attempt to decriminalise the offence of watching TV without a licence, despite such a move being approved by Parliament in 2014.

  6. The paper says that for each of the next two to three years, £20 million of licence fee income will be made available to other broadcasters such as Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV to bid for to produce public service broadcasting content. This looks very much like a public subsidy to commercial companies which would very likely be contrary to EU legislation. Additionally, the public pay the licence fee on the explicit understanding that this is to fund the BBC rather than being diverted to support other commercial broadcasters.

The conclusion is that the paper is like rearranging the deck chairs on Titanic. Rather than directly addressing the significant challenges the BBC faces, the paper proposes to continue propping up this archaic broadcasting behemoth, like King Canute trying to hold back the digital tides of broadcasting in the 21st century.


2nd May 2016 — Case for privatising the BBC

The recent report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) titled The Case for Privatising the BBC is a breath of fresh air compared to the hysterical hubris from the BBC Trust and the lumbering stodge from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in the lead up to the BBC charter renewal.

The IEA report is a thorough analysis based on economic theory for abolishing the TV licence fee and hence for privatising the BBC. Along the way it demolishes the claim that only a publicly funded BBC can ensure the delivery of public service broadcasting content (PSB), and examines claims of bias within the BBC.

Rapid technological innovations in the availability of broadcasting spectrum, the wide availability of internet and cable delivery systems and the introduction of varied and portable TV receiving devices (i.e. iPhones etc) has totally changed the landscape from when the TV licence was introduced in 1946, in an age when the BBC was the only UK television broadcaster. It is now manifestly unfair and anti-competitive to have to pay the BBC to watch any live television in the UK when there are so many commercially funded channels available.

Moreover, the BBC’s dependence on public funding and government oversight imposes severe restrictions on its commercial activities and plans to expand globally to compete with other broadcasting companies. As it is now the BBC’s licence fee income finances less than a quarter of the UK’s television output compared to advertising and subscription income of its UK competitors. This inevitably leads to the conclusion the BBC should be privatised. And if not, it is heading into a cul-de-sac and eventual irrelevance.

The BBC’s PSB responsibilities raise an interesting contradiction. On one hand it has to broadcast PSB content which other commercial channels wouldn’t find profitable, on the other it sells its own commercial content overseas via BBC Worldwide. So it has an incentive to produce better commercial material than its UK competitors—maybe not what one would expect from a PSB company?

It is generally accepted that the licence fee is not sustainable in the long term, so why doesn’t the DCMS tackle the issue now rather than kicking it into the long grass? There is talk now of the next charter being for 11 years. But at the current rate of technical change what will the broadcasting environment look like in 2028?

In the meantime the IEA report makes interesting reading as background to the charter renewal. At the time of writing, of the national newspapers, only the Telegraph and Independent have commented on the report—the Guardian is conspicuous by its absence, but then it’s one of the most widely purchased papers by the BBC …


26th March 2016 — Will John Whittingdale be the next minister to resign?

Will John Whittingdale be the next minister to resign from the Government?

Apart from Brexit issues, Ian Duncan Smith’s main reason for resigning from his position of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was being continually undermined by George Osborne insisting on relentless benefit cuts, whilst at the budget on 16th March 2016 finding money for tax reductions, especially cutting Capital Gains Tax rates.

In some respects John Whittingdale, who is also pro-Brexit, is in a similar situation. Before being appointed to his current position as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on 11th May 2015, he was Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. The Committee published a paper Future of the BBC on 10th February 2015 which includes the following recommendations:


  1. 255.We believe that the current means of setting the licence fee is unsatisfactory. The 2010 settlement demonstrated that the BBC’s independence can be compromised by negotiations with the government of the day that lack transparency and public consultation. Irrespective of any Government pressure, the BBC Trust breached its Charter duties and often-stated commitments to reflect the interests of licence fee payers first and foremost, in agreeing the settlement in the manner it did.

  2. 256.No future licence fee negotiations must be conducted in the way of the 2010 settlement: the process must be open and transparent, licence fee payers must be consulted and Parliament should have an opportunity to debate the level of funding being set and any significant changes to funding responsibilities. We recommend that the independent panel and Charter Review process consider the appropriate length of licence fee settlements and the period in which they should be reviewed and changes made.


And yet in the budget of 8th July 2015, without any prior debate whatsoever, George Osborne decided to transfer the cost of the over 75s licenses from the Department of Work and Pensions directly to the BBC, costing them an estimated £750 million annually by the time the transfer is complete in 2020, although there were additional measures to reduce the broadband rollout levy and allow the licence fee to rise with inflation.

John Whittingdale was given the unenvious task of announcing this to parliament two days before the budget. The whole sorry debacle is documented in Hansard: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm150706/debtext/150706-0001.htm#1507066000004

This is exactly the sort of grubby backroom deal that John Whittingdale only five months previously had said should never happen again. He must be fairly annoyed—all that work since 2005 in the CMS thrown to the four winds on the whim of George Osborne.

This doesn’t bode well for a successful Royal Charter Review. There are some key points to consider:

  1. Mission, Purpose and Values. Mission, Purpose and Values – what the BBC is for, examining the overall rationale for the BBC and the case for reform of its public purposes.

  2. Scale and scope – what the BBC therefore should do, examining the services it should deliver and the audiences it should be seeking to serve.

  3. Funding – how the BBC should be paid for, examining not just future potential funding models but related issues such as how best to enforce payment.

  4. Governance – how the BBC should be overseen, examining options for reform of the current Trust model alongside other governance issues.

There is plenty potential here for George Osborne and David Cameron to disrupt proceedings. The review has already been delayed due to the May 2016 general election. Production and publication of the required white paper could well be further delayed due to the Brexit referendum and purdah starting on 25th May. And goodness knows what mayhem will ensure if Brexit gets voted for; but either way there is likely to be a general election after the referendum. There is therefore a strong possibility that a new Charter may not be agreed by 31st December 2016 and John Whittingdale will get a poor end of term report.

So there must be a strong possibility that he will simply jump ship while the going’s good.