A letter arrives from one Debbie Beckett on behalf of the Television Licensing Authority. She accuses me of being a liar. She thinks I am not telling the truth when I say that I don't own a television set. This is what she says:
We may visit your address to confirm that no licence is required. You see, it is our duty to make sure that everyone in the UK who needs a licence has one.
We visit addresses to check because, when we make these visits, almost 1 in 5 is found to need a licence. Please be assured that this is a routine visit, and will take no more than a few minutes.
Debbie's perky "You see" is misleadingly informal. She is threatening to impose a visit by officials with a statutory right of entry to come into my home looking for a television set despite my repeated assurances by post and email over the years that there isn't one to be found. This is because I dislike watching television programmes and because there is no obligation in a liberal democracy to own one.
I regularly get these irritating and presumptuous reminders in the post and am especially annoyed that my assurances seem to count for nothing. I last owned a television in around 1990 (it was an unwanted gift) and of course I had a licence then but seldom watched any programmes. There never seemed to be anything worth watching.
According to Debbie "almost 1 in five" visits uncover a telly-owning household without a licence- which means that more than four out of five household have no need for a television licence because, like me, they choose not to own a television and are actually telling the truth. That seems to me like a very high proportion. Does non-ownership of a telly make one pre-disposed to truthfulness? I think so, and would encourage Debbie to do the same.
What percentage of the UK population doesn't have a telly? What are the demographics? The Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board is the only organisation providing this statistic so my calculations are based on their figures. BARB estimates 'approximately 97%' of households in the UK do own televisions.
The UK has a population of around 61 million and, as the average number of people living in each household is 2.36, the number of households is estimated by BARB at approximately 26 million (although this seems to me an odd way of arriving at the figure, but let's go with it).
So - 3% of 26 million is 0.78 million, or 780,000, the combined populations of Leicester and Bradford. Of this total - according to the Television Licence people - four-fiths (at least) don't need a licence. If, therefore, around 640,000 households are without televisions (or other means to receive live television broadcasts, and I realise this may skew the figures), a population of around 1,510,400 individuals, are non-watchers who find other ways to occupy their time - the combined populations of Birmingham and Leeds.
Watching TV without a valid licence – which currently costs £145.50 for a colour and £49 for a black and white licence (and I wonder if you can still get a black and white set?) – is a criminal offence, and can result in prosecution, court appearances and a fine of up to £1,000 (not including legal costs). The licence fee, let us remember, is to pay for the public broadcasting services of the BBC (both radio and television), and does not cover the other. wholly commercial channels. Whether or not the BBC fulfils its remit as a public service broadcaster (and I happen to think that it does, much of the time), it has a unique funding status that is constantly under threat from government. So the TV Licence is a Good Thing - but I don't see why that means non-watchers need to be harassed by the licensing authority, or why 107 people in the past two years should have been sent to prison simply for not having a licence. Last year 200,000 people received summonses for not having a licence; one in ten of all court cases in Britain are therefore related to this victimless crime. That's rather shocking.
Many of my friends are non-watchers, by which I mean they don't own television sets. One of them keeps a black and white set in the cupboard under the stairs and gets it out occasionally for programmes that snag his fancy (and yes, he has a licence). We all appear to be happy, contented and fulfilled without recourse to the strident consolations of Strictly Come Dancing.