Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Big Brother Is Watching You

It saves time when life imitates art. If you've read the book or seen the movie you don't find reality quite so surprising. Thus I find it helpful that England in 2008 is just like the England depicted in George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four."

"Dear Mr. Pritchard-Kelly" [sic] began the letter from Britain's TV Licensing authority. "We have been advised that you bought television receiving equipment in February 2008 from Dixons Stores Group. However, we have no record of a TV Licence in your name for the above address. Using TV equipment to watch or record television programme services without a valid licence is against the law."

"We have been advised." I love that. What you mean is you have your paws in all sorts of records that help to confirm whether or not residents own a TV and thus whether or not they have paid up so they can watch television legally. (Briefly, for those not living in the UK: Residents here pay a 140 pound annual licence fee that supports the commercial-free BBC.) For Valentine's Day My Lovely Wife bought me a Freeview box, a $40 device which allows us to pull in more than the five terrestrial broadcast channels.

You may be wondering whether this is an appropriate Valentine's Day present. I suspect it was designed to mollify our kids, who were starting to go into serious TV withdrawal. What's interesting is that the TV Licensing folks work every angle. They issued a special press release on Feb. 13, warning licence scofflaws that they faced capture on Valentine's Day. TV Licensing spokesperson Joanna Pearce said: "Getting a knock at the door from TV Licensing while you're trying to impress the object of your affection is likely to leave any would-be lover red-faced. At TV Licensing, we'd rather spare you your blushes, and are taking this opportunity to remind you that we'll be visiting unlicensed homes on Valentine's night like every other night."

TV Licensing catches about 400,000 people a year. Would I be one of them? No, because I'd paid our fee. I'd even considered framing the certificate that came in the mail. But it was lost among the piles of papers in our house. The second threatening letter came about 10 days later: "We still have no record of a TV Licence in your name." I dug out the proof of my law abidingness, called the Licence Confirmation Line and punched in my reference number, clearing my good name.

The Fixed Penalty Support Unit of the Thames Valley Police was the next government office to drop me a line: "In accordance with Section 1 of Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, I hereby give notice that it is intended to take proceedings against the driver of motor vehicle AJ08GOU for the alleged offence of EXCEED 30 MPH .... This allegation WILL be supported by photographic evidence at any subsequent court hearing."

I had (allegedly) been photographed traveling 37 mph in a 30 mph zone in a rental car and the good people at Alamo had ratted me out. I don't doubt that I was speeding. The Vauxhall Vectra longs to run wild and free. But nowhere in the three pages (!) of material did it say how much my ticket would be. All the Fixed Penalty Support Unit cared about was getting my signature on a statement admitting that I was driving the car--mailed back, I should point out, in my envelope and at my expense.

I'm hoping I can avoid a fine by taking a safe-driving class. After all, you can study just about anything at Oxford.

Britain loves its CCTV cameras. I read somewhere that there's one camera for every 14 citizens. You'd think that with that sort of saturation coverage people wouldn't bother committing crimes and when crimes did occur they'd be solved quickly. But that isn't the case. A report last week revealed that only 3 percent of street robberies in London are solved by CCTV. One of the problems is that officers don't like the drudgery of flipping back through hours of video to see what they've caught there.

Maybe they should put the TV Licensing people in charge of that.


mark from alexandria said...

As Jack Lord on Hawaii 5-0 might have put it, book him Dano TV-1.

Hasn't there been a recent debate in the UK about whether the cameras prevent crime? They do seem to lead to quicker resolution, but apparently "the Old Bill" don't like the excruciating work of digging through the tapes to find terrorists, theives, and robbers. Its good to know that both the BBC and major roadways of the UK are safe from the likes of you:->

Anonymous said...

Did the camera record the face of the driver of the vehicle?

I am not for people speeding or running red lights, but we had a very interesting court case recently here in Hong Kong.

A car was photographed going through a red light.

The police, as usual, wrote to the owner asking him to identify the driver.

He ignorned the letter, and was taken to court.

But he won the case, saying he has the right to silence, and not to self incriminate.

The police are saying that it makes it difficult for them to prosecute.

But should that overrule out Bill or Rights?

A very interesting case that I'm sure has parallels in other parts of the world.


Ruth said...

I know this has nothing to do with Orwellian British institutions, but I feel the need to point out that John has parked his butt on the couch more than a few nights and enjoyed the perks of Freeview, even if he didn't know he wanted it last February. And at least I got him something for Valentine's day. Sniff, sniff. (Mind you, he more than made up for the silent Valentine's Day and the way-off-base birthday present (a digital camera that we just returned because the family already has 3, and I don't take pictures) by buying a stunning, completely unexpected, and wholly appreciated Victorian gold ring for Mother's Day.)

Henry said...


In the words of Bob Geldof... sorry, that should be Saint Bob Geldof, (and the Boomtown Rats)... There's Always Someone Looking at You. In this case, the police, the Licence Detector Van Man, and Your Lovely Wife. Be grateful to be in England: in Japan the licence fee guys come door-to-door to lay a guilt trip on you in person. (like YLW I guess).

Good luck beating the speeding rap, boy racer. I bet the fee for the safe driving class will be more than the fine.


Mike M in Columbia MD said...

Ah, yes, I remember paying the TV license during my time in the UK. If I remember rightly, I would just pop down to the local post office (inside a Co-Op store) and pay there. It was about a five minute walk from my house. (And from what you wrote a couple of weeks ago, probably closed now.) Of course, being England, I was probably walking in some form of rain. (I don't complain about Maryland's steamy summers quite so much anymore.) And I always kept my license next to the telly, just in case "the man in the van" came knocking on the door.

mark not from alexandria said...

John, as a long-time resident of Maryland, surely you have received similar communications from our MVA -- noting, for example, that your auto insurance has been canceled, and requesting proof of new insurance, or surrender of your registration, within x days. Or that you did not renew your registration (having, for example sold the car), and asking very politely where the heck your plates are. The eyes of Glen Burnie are upon you, all the live-long day.

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