Belfast Telegraph

Broadcaster's bullying tactics make 'Auntie' look like Big Brother

By Suzanne Breen

The BBC has many reasons to be proud, but the way it pursues the TV licence fee certainly isn't one of them.

Aggressive letters, threats of bailiffs and court actions on a massive scale besmirch the national broadcaster's name.

The heavy-handed and inhumane tactics the organisation employs in collecting its cash sits uncomfortably with the sterling work of its journalists in highlighting civil liberty abuses by other powerful institutions.

The BBC sends out a staggering 3,500 letters every working day to households in Northern Ireland, threatening them with £1,000 fines unless they go out and buy a TV licence.

This is effectively a campaign of mass harassment. People are treated as guilty until proven innocent. I think the BBC is, and certainly can be, much better than this.

No other official body behaves in such an intimidating manner.

If you don't possess a driving licence or a car, the DVLA doesn't bombard you with letters, or come knocking on your door to check whether you do have a vehicle.

I fully appreciate the fine, public interest journalism the BBC produces. Spotlight's brilliant Nama investigation and Mark Carruthers' masterly interview with Basil McCrea on The View are just two examples in recent times.

But that doesn't justify what is an unfair tax that has no place in the 21st century.

People should be able to buy a TV and watch other channels, without having to pay a fee.

A business model that relies on criminal sanctions to achieve success is not viable and strikes at the very heart of democracy.

The Orwellian tone and tactics that the BBC employs regarding the licence fee transforms the nation's favourite 'Auntie' into a belligerent and bullying Big Brother.

It's preposterous that a quarter of all criminal prosecutions in Northern Ireland are for non-payment of the TV licence, and that if 'offenders' don't, or can't, pay the ensuing fines they end up in jail.

Some people don't pay out of principle, but the main reason that the licence fee is dodged is poverty.

According to estimates, 28% of evaders are single parents, mostly women.

I'd like to think that a responsible state body would show these people care and compassion, not condemnation and a prison cell.

Just over a year ago, the Guardian newspaper spent a day in a London court with those charged with not paying the licence fee.

It was an upsetting read. There were single mothers, men on sickness benefit, pensioners and people on the brink of homelessness.

In desperation, one man brought his TV into court, naively thinking that handing over the set would solve the problem.

That the most vulnerable section of our society is criminalised by the BBC is more than regrettable.

It's exactly the type of scandal that the public service broadcaster would normally be investigating.

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