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.