Dogged band of protesters fights Britain’s TV tax

By Jill Lawless

To watch TV in Britain, you need a license, and you need to pay for it.

TOTTON, England — Colin Smith says he’s not a technophobe — and definitely not a criminal.

He’s a law-abiding taxpayer who works in the office of his local legislator, watches classic comedies and political thrillers on his new DVD projector — and doesn’t own a television set.

For this, he says, the British authorities are persecuting him.

Smith’s TV-free status has brought him into conflict with a venerable but unloved British institution: the television license.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s harassment,” Smith said, brandishing a thick folder containing 80 letters he has received over the last seven years, variously suggesting, requesting and demanding that he buy a TV license, at an annual cost of $274. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I don’t see why I have to answer to anybody.”

If you want to watch TV in Britain — and even if, like Smith, you don’t — you have to answer to TV Licensing, the collective name for a group of companies that collects the fee on behalf of the British Broadcasting Corp.

Since 1946, the TV license has been levied on every British household with a television and used to pay for the state-owned, commercial-free BBC. It’s backed up by a formidable enforcement apparatus that includes TV Licensing’s database of 30 million residential addresses, an army of inspectors and a fleet of television-detecting vans. These vehicles are considered so crucial to catching crooks that authorities refuse to reveal how many there are, or how they work.

Every few weeks a new letter from the TV taxman pops through the mailbox of Smith’s semidetached red brick house in Totton, a workaday town on the edge of the New Forest in Southern England.

Many look like utility bills, stamped “payment due immediately.” Others say “official warning” or have the words “notification of impending action” printed on the envelope. One threatens a “full investigation,” another mentions a “potential court appearance,” and yet another warns “a prosecution has serious consequences.”

“My postman must think, ‘Crikey, this guy’s in trouble,”’ said Smith.

Smith, 57, does not reply to the letters.

Those who do answer, saying they don’t own a television, claim the stream of correspondence soon starts up again.

Besides the letters, Smith has had three visits from inspectors, one of whom threatened to come back with a search warrant when Smith would not let him in. He has not returned.

“It’s an outrage,” Smith said. “They just assume that you’re breaking the law.”

TV Licensing denies its tactics are heavy-handed. A spokesman said that “some of our mailings contain messages that are designed to deter a possible evader.”

“However, we don’t presume that everyone is guilty of committing an offense, and we do try to ensure that nonviewers are not overly troubled by our inquiries, and that we don’t cause unnecessary upset,” he said on condition of anonymity in line with company policy.

TV Licensing points out that many people who claim not to have a television are lying — the authority caught 400,000 fee-dodgers last year. License fee evaders can be fined up to $2,000, although the top penalty is rarely imposed.

The fee was introduced as a radio license in 1922 and expanded to include television in 1946. TV licenses are common across Europe, although the concept has never caught on in North America.

While many in Britain grumble about the expense, legal challenges to the fee have failed.

Former journalist Jonathan Miller waged a high-profile campaign to abolish the TV license that led to a prosecution in 2003 for failing to pay.

He made headlines, but lost the case. Miller was convicted and fined. He still opposes the fee, still has no TV license — but now declines to say whether he owns a television.

“I don’t feel I need to tell the state what newspapers I read, or what Web sites I visit, or how I receive audiovisual programming,” Miller said. “It’s none of their business.”

Despite his failure in court, Miller says the upside of his experience is that he is no longer harassed by TV license inspectors.

“They leave me alone now,” he said. “I caused them a lot of trouble last time.”

Last year, the government agreed to continue the license fee until 2013, but its long-term future is uncertain.

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