British authorities filed criminal charges against more than 130,000 people in 2018 for failing to pay a mandatory $200 tax that keeps the British Broadcasting Corporation afloat. The prosecutions hit Britons as young as 10 years old.
The "license" fee is required of every household in the country where people watch TV—even if they never watch the network's public-service broadcasts. Government enforcers patrol streets in roving signal-detection vans, armed with a payment database covering 31 million addresses.
About 70 percent of the people they target are women, government statistics show.
The BBC is a publicly funded network of TV and radio stations akin to PBS and NPR in the United States, which receive comparatively little funding from governments and only voluntary donations from the public.
Every resident of the UK is required by law to pay to watch or listen, the network says on a special website
, "if you watch or record live TV on any channel, or through any provider." The mandate covers every "TV, desktop computer, laptop, mobile phone, tablet, games console, digital box or DVD/Blu-Ray/VHS recorder."
The taxpayer-funded enforcement squads can "check if you have a licence or not," the BBC says, and "[i]f you tell us that you do not need a TV Licence, our officers may still visit you to confirm this."
Scofflaws "could be prosecuted," the network warns, "if we find that you have been watching, recording or downloading programmes illegally."
The BBC Quay House is pictured on Salford Quays, Manchester on May 17, 2012 as the broadcaster prepared to lavish production expenses on its Olympics coverage (Flickr/Craig Chew-Moulding)
"The maximum penalty is a £1,000 ($1,300) fine plus any legal costs and/or compensation you may be ordered to pay.” On the island of Guernsey the fine is doubled.
Reports of threatening letters and mobile WiFi signal-detectors are common.
The BBC raises $4.7 billion through these involuntary license fees every year—about 75 percent of its budget. But in an age of free online information, a grassroots movement has grown to challenge it.
Newly minted Prime Minister Boris Johnson
's government has called for a fresh look, complete with public input on whether to decriminalize watching television without a permit.
Baroness Nicky Morgan, the UK's Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport," said "the criminal sanction for TV licence fee evasion is unfair and disproportionate."
Like the Obamacare system's now-defunct "individual mandate" to buy health insurance, the BBC could quickly become insolvent without license fees—or forced to turn to the private sector for sponsorship. And the fight over its future has become intensely political.
"For years the BBC has had a deep set institutional liberal bias. It drinks deep at the well of political correctness," said Peter Whittle, an Independent member of London's governing Assembly and founding director of the New Culture Forum think tank.
'Question Time' pictured in a taping from September 26, 2019 in Cardiff, Wales, is the BBC's most popular political program; some see bias on-screen and don't want to fund it with mandatory fees (YouTube/BBC)
"Its recruiting and training are awash with affirmative action. On issues such as Brexit it has even ignored the findings of its own internal investigation into bias."
Whittle is particularly annoyed with what he sees as a political imbalance on "Question Time," the UK's most-watched political program, saying it "has systematically shown bias in its selection of guests and audiences."
The BBC "has decided its job is to lead opinion ... while taxing them and threatening them with jail if they refuse to pay for the privilege."
BBC Chairman Sir David Clementi this week claimed attacks on the network amount to attacks on the UK itself.
"We play an important part in the nation's life," he said. "No other brand resonates around the world like the BBC. No other national asset has the potential to serve Britain so powerfully."
"The BBC is a great national asset," he said. "A diminished BBC is a weakened United Kingdom."
The Old Bailey, the site of London's main criminal court, is pictured in 2010 (Flickr/Amanda Slater)
The network's treatment of the UK's recently finalized "Brexit" split from the European Union is the biggest source of political outrage.
Robin Aitken, a 25-year BBC veteran journalist, said BBC brass "think that the EU is a force for good" and paternally "slant things ... for our own good."
Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen said Britons "should not go to prison for non-payment," and the network should be willing to compete for audience-share. That, however, could present a generational challenge.
"The BBC's system is irrelevant to young people," he said. "Nobody under the age of 20 watches it. They are all on YouTube and Netflix."