Sales techniques and human rights

Picture this. You receive a letter at your home from a company letting you know that you have not purchased their product this year. They gently remind you that everyone who uses their product is required to pay for it. They give you information on how to pay for it.

Over the following months, you get further letters – each one less friendly, more stern than the last – detailing the penalties if you are caught using their product without paying for it. They begin to talk of sending salespeople to your door to confirm that you aren’t using the product (but they call them “enforcement officers”).

Eventually, a salesperson does come by. You haven’t used their product; you have been threatened by mail for several months; and now someone is asking to be let into your home to confirm that you haven’t stolen their product without paying. Not a police officer. A salesperson.

How do you feel about this sequence of events? What kind of country do you think this happens in?

Welcome to the world of the British TV Licence Fee, administered by TV Licencing.

Now, I acknowledge that with a service as difficult to box up as broadcast television, it is difficult to come up with a viable and fair business model. Ideally only those who use the service will be charged (rather than just paying for public broadcasting through general tax dollars that everyone pays), but how do you determine who needs a license? They need to ask people if they use a TV to receive broadcast signals. But, in order to filter out liars and cheats, they need customers to feel that the salespeople have more authority than they have. (No salesperson – even a TV License “Enforcement Officer” – ever has the right to enter your home without your permission, or even to demand any information of you, such as your name.)

In other words, in order for what seems like a fair system work, they need to make it seem like a system that isn’t fair – a system where salespeople have the right to spy on you (with their detector vans), the right to come into your home, the right to treat you as a criminal until you prove you’re not.

Many countries have a licence fee; many others don’t. What do you think? Most people use a television; is it better to slightly mistreat the minority who don’t in order to make an otherwise fair system practical? Or is it more fair to charge everyone indirectly, through general taxation, so that nobody’s privacy or legal presumption of innocence (article 11 here) is violated?

Deena and I are lucky – we’re assertive, and we know our rights. But many people are less well-equipped than us to rebuff the TV Licencing people. How many elderly people, slightly confused with early Alzheimer’s disease, are badgered into signing away a portion of their meagre incomes by the bullying letters?

Were it not for this fact, I might be at least ambivalent about the TV Licence. But as it stands, I can’t see that it’s defensible in its current form in a free and democratic society.

Am I taking this too personally? Making a big deal out of nothing? What do you think?

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