Watching the Detectives
Watching the Detectives
This week back in 1952, the first TV detector van – a brand new way of tracking owners of unlicensed television sets in the UK – was demonstrated in front of Postmaster-General, Lord De La Warr.
A 1952 BBC TV detector van
Now, although this may just sound like a quirky historical technology milestone, we think that detector vans deserve a little more explanation – both for our readers outside of the UK, and for those among you who have never quite been convinced that this method of detection was all that it seemed. So here’s some brief background.
In 1926 the British Broadcasting Company – a British commercial company formed in 1922 by British and American electrical businesses trying to sell their innovative products to radio buyers – was wound up. All of its assets were transferred to the non-commercial, royal chartered British Broadcasting Corporation, or the BBC as we know it today. With the advent and wider adoption of TV broadcasting, the British government decided to introduce a licence fee payable by all TV set owners, who by necessity were viewers of BBC programming, the only show in town.
Introduced on 1 June 1946, the licence covered a single channel, black and white BBC television service, and it cost £2 per year. In 1968, a ‘colour supplement’ of £5 was added to the then £5 monochrome licence, making a full-colour licence fee £10 per annum. Today the equivalent fee for every UK household (with a variety of exceptions) receiving television broadcasts is £145.50 (£49 if you’re still watching solely in black and white) – and that includes the use of devices such as computers, tablets and smartphones. In 2011–12, declared licence fee revenues were £3.681 billion – the lion’s share of the BBC’s total income of around £5 billion. The licence fee is classified as a tax set by the UK’s Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, with the BBC authorised to collect fees by the Communications Act 2003. Evasion remains a criminal offence, and nearly every household in the UK routinely pays their licence, with many believing that detector vans will find them out if they don’t.
But would they? Really?
The 1952 detection equipment was developed at experimental Post Office labs in Dollis Hill, London. Contemporary photos show three horizontal loop aerials slung on the roofs of old trucks. These detector vans were apparently designed to receive signals from TV sets in homes using internal or external aerials, and were said to patrol Britain’s streets regularly, pin-pointing signals and matching them against a list of licensed homes before making doorstep demands.
And here’s the rub. Although most Brits grew up watching foreboding adverts of a slow moving but scarily sophisticated fleet of vans, and have dutifully paid their fees in fear of detection, an increasing number of people today have stopped believing in them entirely. It began when I was young, when I was told that what the licensing people actually did was just randomly knock on the doors of households with rooftop TV aerials and spot checked licences, solely to keep the detection van myth going. This cynicism has grown and grown, and today it is generally accepted that if there really is a fleet of vans, then it probably fits in one pretty small lock-up garage, and only exists for PR purposes, if at all.
What is almost certain, is that the vast majority of licence evaders these days are not tracked by tricksy vans with special equipment on their roofs at all, but by unpaid direct debit records, tracked against an historic database, and prompted by renewal letters. In fact the only time I’ve ever heard of friends having their licences checked is when moving house, which again doesn’t demand much investigation by the BBC, and certainly not a spy vehicle of any kind.
So what do you think, really – 60-odd years of expensively maintained vehicle fleets and armies of personnel roaming the British countryside fingering licence evaders, or an evolution from random checks with clipboards into routine checks with databases and bank records? High-tech mobile surveillance, or a deterring veil of Orwellian scare tactics? Every opinion from every angle can be found online, of course (some pretty definitive, actually), but sometimes it’s more interesting to ask yourself – what do you really think? Had you even bothered to question the existence of detector vans?
Oh, and don’t forget to tell us!