6 DECEMBER 2003, Page 30

Taking liberties

Michael Yardley describes his bitter experience of how the licensing people get their information about who owns a TV set 1 , n pre-Velvet-Revolution Czechoslovakia they used to license typewriters; in the UK we still license televisions. It raises money for an outrageously biased and smug state broadcaster. This whole system is hostile to liberty. It also has some odd consequences, not least in the retail electrical trade. The other day I was in Tesco, where I made an impulse purchase of a combined TV and VHS player. I did not possess a telly and they were being knocked out for under /100. I took a box from the pile-'emhigh-and-sell-'em-cheap display, made my way to the checkout and paid with plastic.

Having made the purchase, a demand was made for my name and address. 'You've got to give it,' the cashier noted. 'I don't want to seem rude,' I replied. 'but I do not have to do anything.' You have to give us your details. We have to tell the TV licensing authorities.' 'I do not want to give the information out. I've already bought the television.. 'Well, write anything you want down on the form.1 don't want to write down something false.' 'Do you have a Tesco card?' What's that got to do with it?' 'You don't have to give us your name and address if you have a Tesco card, love.' 'That's because you already have the details electronically recorded.' 1 suppose it is. I'll have to call the manager.' Please do.'

Some minutes later, an assistant manager arrived accompanied by security — an unshaven and rather thuggish-looking young man with a personal radio. This

irked me, and before saying anything else on my right to withhold my personal details, I asked, 'Why have you brought this gentleman? I'm not a shoplifter, nor am 1 causing any trouble. I am just exercising my right to withhold my name and address.' The assistant manager, a monoagenda woman of about 40, ignored my protests about security and continued on the same tack as the cashier (but in a more imperious tone). 'You have to give us your name and address. It's the law.' I got bolshy. 'Well. I had a grandfather who spent a year in a Gestapo prison just so I could refuse to give my name and address when I choose.'

The stalemate continued. It was clear that the store staff — typical creatures of modern Britain — really did not understand where I was coming from on the freedom issue. The lady on the adjacent checkout aisle had briefly raised my hopes when she asked, 'What d'you think of these ID cards, then? think that they arc a bad idea and will not stop illegal immigrants or terrorism.' She dashed my hopes by responding, 'Oh, I like them!' Again it was suggested that I should write down 'anything' on the form. I borrowed a pen. Here goes: Basil Brush, The Kennels, Northampton. You can't write that."Well, I have. You said write anything. That's just what I have done. Can I have my television?'

They changed tack. 'You've got to give us your name and address or you can't have the television.' 'But I've paid for it.' 'You can't have it.' At this point, perhaps I should have walked out of the shop with the television and risked prosecution for some unspecified offence in Kafkaesque Britain. I went for the less dramatic option. 'Well, I'll have my money back.' The first response from the shop staff was that this was impossible. They backed down when I pressed the point. I was directed to 'customer services', A credit was made to my card. I left without a television. What a palaver.

Driving home, I thought back to the last time I had bought a television, ten years or more ago. I had a dim memory of being asked for my name and address 'for the guarantee.. It wasn't for that purpose, I now knew. It was a ploy to get the information for the faceless ones. I opened my front door. What was waiting for me on the mat? A letter from the TV licensing authorities threatening me with the 'shame' of prosecution for not having a TV licence for a television that I did not possess. Paranoia set in.

I might add at this point that this was but the most recent of several warnings that had been sent to my television-free home. They become increasingly nasty. The assumption is that every right-minded person must have a television. So, if no licence is recorded at your address, you must be in breach of the law: guilty until proved innocent. If you are not in possession of a television, you are required to write to the authorities to tell them so. Why should you? I had once wasted time doing this, but the letters kept coming.

And, now that my blood is boiling and we are on the subject of paranoia, what about 'detector vans'? Do you remember that campaign 'Watch out, there's a TV detector van about'? Apparently, the good folk from TV licensing were patrolling the country with radio direction-finding equipment, similar to that used by the Nazis to track down pesky members of the French Resistance and SOE. The detector van, though, was mostly a myth. There were no more than a handful ever built: the real way that asocial, licence-free citizens were 'detected' was by means of a database of information collected by television retailers and discreetly passed on to government.

You may say that people should buy their television licences. That is a point of view, but the argument against TV licences is deeper. It is not just about the nature of the BBC and the way in which broadcasting is funded in the UK. It is about the centralised authority that has been created to collect the money, and the deceit practised to do so. Orwellian is an overused expression, but it applies in this case. Big Brother is watching and he wants you to watch and pay. You can't opt out. There is only one answer: throw the box in the bin and give them the Agincourt salute. There's nothing worth watching on the bloody television anyway.