Smart move, BBC, but just admit why you did it

21 Jun 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Smart move, BBC, but just admit why you did it

Why can't the BBC openly declare that a mandatory iPlayer log-in is about licence fee enforcement, wonders Raymond Snoddy

The trouble with the BBC is that sometimes it doesn’t quite say what it means - or conflates multiple arguments so that you have to watch very carefully to spot the sleight of hand.

Official BBC statements are very carefully constructed by some of the best in the business to create the desired impression, without straying into the total porkie land of politicians.

The closing of BBC Three as a broadcast channel was an obvious example. This unusual step for any broadcaster anywhere in the world was dressed up as a great leap forward into the future - oh and on the side it was also a cost-cutting measure.

It was clearly and primarily about cost-cutting and one that had been forced on the BBC by pressure on revenue, but the closest the Corporation could come to admitting the stark truth was to acknowledge that the wondrous move online was happening perhaps a year or two prematurely.

So it is with the now pressing requirement to register with a password to access the catch-up services of the BBC via the iPlayer.

This is both a sensible and a necessary step.

In one of former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s more sensible decisions, he announced in March 2016 that the iPlayer "loophole" would be closed.

The loophole was that anyone who watched BBC content via the iPlayer a day or even an hour after live transmission had no legal obligation to pay for a licence fee.

If it wasn’t live it was all legally free, and more and more people were spotting the possibility of using the free iPlayer for catch-up and getting their live programmes such as news and current affairs elsewhere.

The BBC was looking at a £100 million hole in its licence fee revenues and who knows how far the practice might spread, particularly among younger adults who are used to getting things free online.

“If I don’t legally have to pay why should I?” was the rather cynical argument heard at the time.

The legal loophole has been closed. It is now illegal to watch or download BBC programmes through the iPlayer without a licence fee, though not other catch-up services. But how do you enforce such a thing without racking up huge technical costs or appearing to behave in a draconian, snoopy way?

The wheeze the BBC has come up with is an elegant solution. To use the BBC iPlayer you have to register with your name, date of birth, an email address, a password and a postcode. It’s easy. I have just done so.

But naturally the BBC, or more precisely Andrew Scott, launch director of MyBBC insists the changes are not about “enforcing the licence fee, it’s about giving you a better BBC.”

Well, yes, up to a point, and the BBC promises it won’t be using mass surveillance techniques or asking internet providers for IP addresses.

That approach surely wouldn’t work anyway because of data protection legislation.

No, the BBC would simply use the new registered information alongside existing enforcement techniques to help identify people who are watching licence fee-funded content without a licence.

So it is about enforcing the licence fee after all then?

It is entirely reasonable for the BBC to try to personalise its services and help and encourage people to find more BBC offerings that might interest them. Such a process runs with the grain of modern marketing - personalisation.

It is surely sensible to encourage licence payers to feel part of a club with privileges and indeed that aspect could be developed in future to soften a little the most controversial aspect of the licence fee and one that clearly offends some citizens - that it is compulsory.

However, lest there be any doubt, BBC account registration is indeed mandatory to use BBC iPlayer and BBC iPlayer Radio.
So how will the BBC use the new registration information alongside “existing enforcement techniques.”

Date of birth enables the licence fee enforcers to exclude those who are either too young or too old to have to pay the licence fee, at least for now.

Name and postcode would surely lead those interested to be able to find out in a nanosecond whether there is a licence fee payer at a particular address.

The BBC also has an email address which can be used to, at the very least, point out the suspicion of an illegal act even if there might not be enough information for an actual prosecution.

Presumably in the absence of a satisfactory response such a registered individual could be rather rapidly de-registered and, in the circumstances, would be unlikely to sue the BBC.

No attempt to close loopholes is ever perfect, as some online wide-boys are already making clear.

“Just open an account with a false name and address and use a VPN. No problems and they don’t know who you are. What do they think we use to watch all football for free,” says “white and proud” revealing perhaps more of himself than he intends.

Others suggest that some Android boxes have iPlayer on them so you don’t need any proof to get into the website with them - something which may or may not be true.

Overall, however, is seems more than a little disingenuous to downplay the licence fee policing implications when that is clearly a major, and perfectly proper, part of what is going on.

As Whittingdale said last year: “the BBC works on the basis that all who watch it pay for it.”

The Corporation cannot operate over the long term on any other basis.

There are many who are passionate about not paying the BBC licence fee and indeed want to see it abolished.

In an electoral curiosity those ranks include the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland which wants to freeze, then cut and finally abolish the licence fee.

The DUP seems to think because we have the likes of Netflix all will be well in such a world.

We can exclusively predict that interim Prime Minister Theresa May is unlikely to fall for that one.

The BBC’s longer term interests would be better served by admitting openly that the dictum put forward by Whittingdale, that those who watch the BBC must pay, is correct.

It should also push ahead with defending the concept of the universal licence fee and exclude the would be free-riders without seeking to pretend this is all about offering a more personalised service.

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NickDrew, MD, Fuse Insights on 25 Jun 2017
“In addition to the previous commenter's points, it's also worth reminding readers that it's not require to have a TV licence in order to listen to the radio - and so logging into the iPlayer Radio app is unrelated to licence fee enforcement.

Getting back to your original question, why can't the BBC openly declare that a mandatory iPlayer log-in is about licence fee enforcement? Because outside the media bubble, the licence fee is divisive, seen as a regressive tax that simultaneously makes the BBC a political pawn and (according to some) is pushing British viewers to alternatives to free-to-air TV, such as Netflix. So while this could be a step on the way to licence fee enforcement, it's far better not to describe it as such.

...which is a pretty easy answer, really!”
AA, N/A, N/A on 21 Jun 2017
“You have made a few points that are seemingly incorrect.

"Date of birth enables the licence fee enforcers to exclude those who are either too young or too old to have to pay the licence fee, at least for now."

For users over 18, they aren't seemingly saving your full date of birth, and just your year of birth. You can see this when going to your settings - so they can't tell you what your actual age is.

"Name and postcode would surely lead those interested to be able to find out in a nanosecond whether there is a licence fee payer at a particular address."

They don't take a name, and a postcode doesn't give you an address, it gives you a street/building. Pretty useless when trying to see if a particular address has a licence fee or not.

"The BBC also has an email address which can be used to, at the very least, point out the suspicion of an illegal act even if there might not be enough information for an actual prosecution."

A licence fee covers a household, not a particular person. There is no way at all for them to connect a BBC account to a licence fee with an email address UNLESS someone has specifically said they DON'T need a TV licence, and that email address is connected to their TV licensing account. Otherwise they will be completely wasting their time and trying to ask people to sign up to a TV licence when they have one already, but their email address isn't the same as their partner/parents etc.

So, in conclusion, how can it be "all about licence fee enforcement" when they can't enforce the licence fee apart from in one specific sense. There is no "TV licence number" to enter when registering, so how can any of this article be correct?”

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