The French want to prevent people watching TV over the internet without a TV license. Richard Berry asks if it is time we considered doing the same.
You can watch television in your own home without a TV license. That’s not an incitement to commit a criminal offence – it’s simply a statement of legal fact. Anyone who has a computer (or even a decent smartphone) and an internet connection can watch a huge amount of television without paying the government a penny for the privilege.
Watching television over the net has been getting easier and easier. All of Britain’s major broadcasters make a large proportion of their output available for free on their websites – Sky does the same for its paid subscribers – with services such as the BBC’s iplayer and Channel Four’s 4od.
The law states that anyone watching a television show must have a license, even if using a computer. But only if you watch it as it is broadcast. That’s a rather quaint phrase nowadays, harking back to the days when the Radio Times dictated what we watched, and when. With any of the online services, it is possible – nay, encouraged – to wait until the original broadcast of a show is ”finished” and watch it unlicensed almost immediately. It’s a form of tax avoidance even Jimmy Carr would be proud of.
What’s more, even if you don’t watch television on the internet, computer owners still get to access the wealth of other information the BBC publishes online, including its news and educational content. This is all paid for out of the TV license.
A new proposal from France seeks to close this loophole. The French operate a TV license scheme much like Britain’s, with the money similarly ring-fenced to pay for public television and radio. Now legislators there are considering extending the requirement to buy a TV license to everyone who owns a computer. Estimates suggest about 11 million more people in France watch television on a computer. Many of these people will already have a license – but if just 10% of this group can be forced to buy a license it would raise €138 million (at €125 a pop).
The biggest problems with this proposal are to do with implementation. Would we try to target only those people that watch television on the internet? It would seem to be an unacceptable invasion of privacy for the state to start monitoring what people use the internet for.
But if there is a more blanket requirement for all computer owners to buy a license, does this not undermine the very basis of our system? The TV license is designed to ensure the independence of our state broadcaster from the government. If the license is de-coupled from broadcasting – which it would be if people who have no intention of using broadcast services – it surely loses legitimacy.
If we do use the blanket approach, further problems of cost and complexity arise. License inspectors can visit houses without a TV license to check whether they are receiving transmissions, and ultimately search the premises for a television set. An internet connection might be just as easy for an inspector to detect, but what then? An iPad is incredibly easy to hide – and even if it’s found during a search, whose to say it doesn’t belong to a friend who left it there by mistake? (I’m really not trying to incite crime here – honest.) It’s questionable whether the revenue gained from this policy would exceed the cost of enforcing it.
There are excellent reasons to explore this proposal further. In fairness terms alone, if one person must pay to watch the BBC than so should we all. But whether a legal regime developed for the previous technological era can so easily be applied to the current one is another matter.
Photo: David Sim