Paul Jacob

"Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed for ever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you."--George Orwell, 1984

No, it's not quite the bleak vision of George Orwell. But it's close enough.

In 1949, Orwell published a novel set in the far-flung future of three and a half decades later. It tells of a semi-recognizable Britain, now scooped up in the mega-state of Oceania, whose citizens are controlled via telescreens in every room. These screens transmit the all-seeing gaze of Big Brother and Big Bro's myriad clerical proxies. Under this Oceanic surveillance, even one's innermost thoughts are not secure.

Orwell envisioned an apparatus of control so "scientific" and total that it couldn't help but produce the totally submissive citizen--the man who, though he might resist for a while, in the end always "loves Big Brother."

In 2003 what the British citizen must fear is not the telescreen in every room, but the bureaucrat in every room checking whether you have a telescreen. If you do but aren't paying your "TV license fee," woe unto you! You won't be punished for thoughtcrime, but you will be punished for viewcrime. And if you choose not to own a TV at all...woe unto you again!

I only recently learned of Great Britain's TV tyranny, thanks to a report about an erroneously invoiced German cat (about which more later). Britain's mandatory license-fee regime, which is hardly new, seems to be so ingrained that most of the queen's subjects just grumble and pay. This is how frogs get boiled, of course--slowly and by routine--so that even the frogs just shrug their shoulders about it. "What do you mean, we're being boiled alive? Of course we're being boiled alive. It's always been this way."

In various forms the TV license fee has been around since the 1920s, when it applied to radio. The scheme was later used to fund the British television monopoly, so that the government could claim that fees, not taxes, were the funding source. This is a bit of doublethink, obviously; the BBC is a government construct, not the product of voluntary interactions between TV service buyer and TV service seller.

It used to be the post office that collected this license fee. But since 1991, the task has devolved to the BBC itself, specifically its dummy corporation the Television Licensing Authority. Meanwhile, TV dealers are required by law to collect the names and addresses of people who buy televisions. This info then goes into a giant database.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.