Non-payment of BBC licence fee accounts for 10% of prosecutions

The BBC is responsible for more than one in 10 criminal prosecutions. Culture Secretary Sajid Javid reports that 10% of magistrate court cases are for non-payment of the BBC licence fee. Non-payment is a criminal offence, punishable by a fine of up to £1,000. Every week about 3,000 people are fined for non-payment, and about one person a week is jailed for non-payment of the fine.

Women make up about 70% of those prosecuted and convicted, and half of those jailed for not paying the fine. When people fail to pay other utilities, such as energy companies, they are guilty of a civil offence, not a criminal one, and they cannot be prosecuted and fined for falling behind with their payments. Civil action can be taken for recovery, but without fines and jail terms.

Several newspapers have had reporters visit magistrate’s court to describe what goes on. They all tell harrowing stories of frightened, distressed people, mostly women, facing fines they cannot pay under threat of imprisonment if they do not. Many are single mothers, many on benefits. They have not paid the licence fee because they cannot afford to. The sum of £145.50 per year is huge for a young mother struggling to feed and clothe children. Many weep in court, unable to pay the fine for the same reason they couldn’t afford the licence fee; they don’t have the money.

Everyone with a TV, except the over 75s, has to pay, whether or not they watch BBC programmes. If people fail to pay for other services, such as a Sky subscription, for example, the service is withdrawn without them being taken to court and fined.

In 21st century Britain we should not be dragging helpless women through courts and fining them, or making their lives more wretched than they already are by putting them in jail for non-payment of those fines. It should be a civil, not a criminal offence, and should be dealt with by withdrawal of the service rather than by prosecution. The technology to do this is relatively simple.

The development of tiny transistor radios killed the radio licence in 1971. Now laptops, tablets and smartphones make the BBC licence fee increasingly difficult to sustain. Many watch TV on portable devices instead of TV sets. They watch programmes on Catch Up and iPlayer. Many do not watch BBC programmes at all. Clearly an alternative way of financing the BBC has to be found. That will take time, but before then non-payment of its licence should be a civil, not a criminal action, and we should stop letting the BBC hound helpless people through the courts.

We can identify George Monbiot’s problem

It’s not just that he’s often factually incorrect, nor that he races off after the wrong rabbit all too often. It’s that he’s in the wrong society:

It just doesn’t compute. Almost every day the news is filled with stories that look to me like corruption. Yet on Transparency International’s corruption index Britain is ranked 14th out of 177 nations, suggesting that it’s one of the best-run nations on Earth. Either all but 13 countries are spectacularly corrupt or there’s something wrong with the index.

Yes, it’s the index. The definitions of corruption on which it draws are narrow and selective. Common practices in the rich nations that could reasonably be labelled corrupt are excluded; common practices in the poor nations are emphasised.

This is not so. We, collectively, here at the ASI have considerable experience of both life and business in other parts of the world. Including places where the first question about doing anything is “So, who do we bribe?”. At least one of us has offered, as professional advice, the point that “If you don’t know who to bribe in that country don’t bother trying to do business in that country”.

The truth is that the index is correct, not just that the terms and definitions being used favour us. Britain really is a remarkably uncorrupt country by the standards of the rest of the world. And that is where we think that Monbiot’s basic problem comes in.

George desires to be a warrior for social justice. Heck, he is a warrior for social justice. He just happens to suffer from the problem of coming from a country that actually already possesses a modicum of social justice. There’s therefore little in the way of social warrioring for him to do.

We do not claim, heavens above we don’t, that Britain is perfect nor that there’s not dodgy dealings in corners of it. but imagine how frustrating it must be to devote one’s life to the theory that the entire structure must be overturned on the basis of that social justice and yet come from one of the few places that has actually managed to achieve a general level of that justice?

The problem with Owen Jones

Young Owen is telling us all that we only mock the more idiot lefties because such mockery obscures the very important message that said lefties are trying to get over. Presumably that one about the necessity of smashing capitalism and sticking it to the man. Sadly he doesn’t quite make his case: for he’s sadly bereft of a basic understanding of how the media works. Yes, it’s entirely true that everyone’s screaming with laughter while discussing two kitchens Ed. But this isn’t because the capitalist media pig dogs are pushing the story:

It is Vine who initiated this latest assault on Ed’s character. The drab kitchen was apparently sufficient grounds to suggest he and his wife are like “aliens”; Justine is compared to “the late Mr Spock”. But then Ed’s ever helpful friend Jenni Russell revealed that it was in fact, just a “functional kitchenette … for tea and quick snacks”. And so the kitchen – sink and all – was thrown at Ed, or “two kitchens” Miliband as he is now to be known.

Why do I bother. Why do any of us bother. Try saying “political debate in Britain” without sniggering. It’s not about issues or people and their needs. It’s a mixture of the privileged scapegoating the largely voiceless – immigrants, people in poverty generally – and puerile character assassination.

The modus operandi of the right is to target anyone vaguely leftish and make the debate about them, rather than what they believe. I’ve written this before, but if you believe in social justice, they will find any reason to trash you. If you’re too poor, they’ll accuse you of envy; too rich, of hypocrisy; too young, of naivety; too old, of being a dinosaur. Above all, the right obsessively hunts anything that can be twisted into hypocrisy. If you think poverty is basically a bad thing and something needs to be done about it, then you have to live in a shed and forage for berries, otherwise you are a hypocritical champagne socialist.

In a market economy (no, this is nothing at all to do with capitalism or any other form of ism) an organisation prospers by delivering what its customers want. They therefore spend quite a lot of time and effort trying to divine what said customers want: so that they can offer it, of course. And with newspapers and the media more generally what people want (sa numerous academic studies have confirmed) is to have their extant prejudices stroked.

Purely hypothetically, if the working class of this country were possessed of some robustly conservative views on sex, gender and immigration, just as examples you understand, then the newspaper (s) that attempted to appeal to the working class of the country would have robustly conservative views on sex, gender and immigration. The newspaper do not form such views, they chase them.

And one of the things that we British do truly hate is hypocrisy. Thus the newspapers point to and urge us to laugh at examples of it, for we enjoy doing so. This isn’t a right/left issue: it’s just how a market works.

Which is why the newspapers are making hay with two kitchens Ed. Because we care very little about “the issues or people and their needs” and hugely about mocking the would be ruling class. And if you don’t in fact know this about the media, that they chase prejudices not form them, then it really might be a good idea not to write about this subject that one is ill informed upon.

The Good Old Days are right now

You can’t make people happy by law. If you said to a bunch of average people two hundred years ago “Would you be happy in a world where medical care is widely available, houses are clean, the world’s music and sights and foods can be brought into your home at small cost, travelling even 100 miles is easy, childbirth is generally not fatal to mother or child, you don’t have to die of dental abcesses and you don’t have to do what the squire tells you” they’d think you were talking about the New Jerusalem and say ‘yes’.

Sir Terry Pratchett. 1948-2015.

If you doubt this in the slightest manner then download the historical GDP per capita figures from Angus Maddison. Note that the numbers are in modern currency (well, 1990s currency) and marvel at how poor the past was. The average Englishman in 1600 had perhaps $3 a day of modern money to live on all told. The average Congolese has that today.

The end of local authority libraries

Local-authority-run public libraries are going the way of launderettes and video stores. Technology has swamped them, and they haven’t responded to the changing pattern of demand. We still have 4,145 public libraries in the UK, about fifteen times as many as we had in the 1920s, despite the fact that more and more of us access our reading material (and even our phone books, newspapers, dictionaries and encyclopaedias) in digital form, that over 84% of households have internet access (76% of us access the web every day) and pretty much all schools have and use the internet.

Bookshops have responded to these changes, bringing in cafe-style environments and organising events and book clubs that bring people into the shop, where they might just browse around and buy something. Libraries like to say they are doing this sort of thing, but it is half-hearted. Birmingham says its new library will only do events that are self-funding, for example: no concept of using events to bring more people in. That dearth of thinking is why Birmingham has discovered that the £10m-a-year cost of running its £188m spanking-new library (which of course won lots of architecture prizes) is unaffordable, given all the other urgent demands on the city’s budget.

It will always be like this. Local authorities have to provide life-saving services, social care, transport, roads, schools, you name it – libraries are always going to be something of a luxury, particularly when 70% of the borrowings are fiction, and much of the rest are about cookery, DIY and cars. Local authorities know this is not  a debate about ‘public education’ but about free entertainment for largely elderly and middle-class users.

LSSI, a company founded by librarians, which works with 78 communities in the US, reckons it can cut the UK libraries budget by 35%, increase opening hours, raise the number of library users, and still spend ten times more on books. Frankly, it is about time we put libraries out to commercial tender.  Let us specify what they are actually there for – not something that up to now there has been any public debate about – and the outputs we want, and then invite private, voluntary and charitable groups to make an offer. You can be sure of two things. Firstly, they would not build £188m white elephants, but would create libraries near to shops, schools and other places that people find local and convenient. And secondly, that the entire business would be revolutionised in short order, leading to everything that libraries are supposed to be there for being do cheaper and better.