Belfast Telegraph

The BBC and Ripa: where Orwell meets The Office...

Big brother: State power grows
Big brother: State power grows

By Paul Connolly

This newspaper's revelation that the BBC uses Ripa laws to investigate suspected TV licence fee dodgers in Northern Ireland is almost as comical as it is disturbing.

The idea of a jumped-up little commissar in Broadcasting House prying through your records has a quality of Orwell meets The Office.

Of course, he won't actually be at the Beeb, rather some grey call centre in a Croydon industrial park. "I took her down, boss, I really did," he might report in his comical sarf London accent. That'll be evil Mrs McGrady in No. 15 well and truly sorted, then.

I exaggerate for effect. And, yes, licence evasion does need tackled.

But use of a sledgehammer to crack a nut is illiberal and counter-productive and could even hasten the eventual decriminalisation of licence-dodging. Are you listening, BBC Trust?

Ripa (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) was originally aimed at organised crime and terrorism.

Now, though, it's being used against your neighbours because they haven't paid a TV licence in 10 years.

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Obvious statement of fact: licence fee dodging is wrong, but it's NOT a threat to the fabric of the nation.

Ripa was introduced in 2000 to safeguard national security. But a series of extensions mean it can now be applied to investigate minor offences. So now it's the Regulation For Snooping Powers Act: a charter for town hall jobsworths to spy on, prosecute and generally creep out citizens for minor breaches of the law.

I don't believe Ripa on its own leads to 1984 or Animal Farm or anything like that. But like freedom of expression, appropriate use of legislation is one of the things you need to perpetually stay on alert for.

We always need to guard against the human compulsion to interfere and over-regulate. Isolated infractions of liberties are usually meaningless, but unchallenged they accumulate to more than the sum of their parts.

Yes, the jobsworths will have their explanations as to why they really need Ripa to save the national broadcaster from financial oblivion. The real answer will be that it's cheap, quick, helps with the targets and, a bit like Everest to mountaineers, because it's there.

Stuff and nonsense: a phalanx of remedies is already available; there is no need for the lazy abuse of State power. States do indeed require strong powers to protect democracy, but they should be commensurate to the threat. Ripa, as it stands, isn't.

It's now being used by police, including the PSNI, to investigate journalists and their sources.

Soon, if not already, we'll have the scenario of a BBC journalist being probed by police officers under Ripa while the Beeb itself uses Ripa to investigate a viewer watching that same journalist's report.

This column has previously revealed that Northern Ireland does not have - and never has had - an investigatory powers commissioner despite being mandated to do so by law. Our unique history and place in the UK requires appropriate local oversight. Confidence in the administration of justice requires it.

David Anderson, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, is currently reviewing the UK's communications data and interception powers. I've now formally written to him to point out the Northern Ireland deficit. Hopefully he'll take notice and bring forward some proposals.

As they used to say in thrilling (non-BBC) drama series 24: I'll keep you posted.

Read more:

BBC uses RIPA terrorism laws to catch TV licence fee dodgers in Northern Ireland 

Use of law an erosion of freedom 

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