BBC Telly Tax heavies got pat on the head from snoopers' overseers

Corporation belatedly says it hasn't asked for fewer independent inspections


Updated The BBC got top marks from the artists formerly known as the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC) – but has refused to say if it will push for fewer external inspections of its use of creepy surveillance powers.

The OSC (which has since been merged into the UK's uber-spying regulator, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office) praised the Beeb's “compliance with the legislation”.

The inspection of the Beeb’s outsourced Telly Tax enforcement arm was carried out in 2016 and was recently revealed under Freedom of Information laws.

peter capaldi as the Doctor and jenna coleman as the assistant in front of the Tardis - from bbc kids fantasy series Doctor Who

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Authorisations to use the Peeping Tom RIPA powers, the OSC inspector noted, were signed off in bulk, with the three authorising officers inside Capita, the telly tax collector, putting their mark on “one single document” at a time which contained “separate intelligence cases”. Each application is also submitted to Capita TV Licensing’s Field Operations Lead, whom the company named in 2017 as Ron Hand, who reads them before giving them to the authorising officer.

RIPA, the misleadingly named Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, grants TV Licensing the power to use a variety of technical and non-technical powers to spy on you and see whether you should pay your BBC subscription. The TV Licence was recently raised to £150.50 per annum. Evading the BBC TV licence is a criminal offence for anyone who records or watches live TV in the UK, even if you don’t watch or listen to the BBC. If you use the BBC iPlayer online service, you'll need a licence, too.

On top of probing how Capita authorises itself to use RIPA powers for collecting the Telly Tax, the OSC also considered “the detection equipment which is operated from a detector van”, that the report noted “is managed by a private company ‘Capita Business Services’.”

The myth of the Telly Tax detector van has persisted since the 1950s. Though a straightforward detection apparatus to pick up RF emissions from the local oscillator inside first-generation TV receivers was entirely feasible back then – that was the principle behind MI5’s Operation Rafter counter-surveillance mission against UK-based Soviet spies – in the modern era, advances in RF shielding and regulation have rendered this method largely obsolete. Most informed adults believe the Telly Tax detector vans are just a made-up story for public consumption, a myth which other grown-ups implausibly continue to play along with.

As well as commending Capita’s “excellent record keeping and administration system”, and giving them a pat on the head for taking their “legal responsibilities very seriously”, the OSC inspector said that the Telly Tax enforcement tentacle “does not necessarily need to be inspected on a two year frequency.” When we asked the BBC whether it had since applied to have fewer independent inspections, the state broadcaster’s press office completely ignored the question.

Instead they told us: “From 1st September 2017, the BBC is subject to the independent oversight of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner's Office. We are subject to their inspection requests, and will comply with any request when it is received.”

The outsourced contract for running the high-pressure TV Licensing sales operation hauled 185,000 people into court in 2016 over alleged non-payment of the Telly Tax and Capita sets its door-to-door salesmen a target of 28 sales per week, earning them bonuses of £1,000 per month for triggering prosecutions. ®

Update

Capita's TV Licensing arm got in touch with us after publication of this story to say: "Capita’s incentive scheme gives Enquiry Officers commission on selling licences only, which is a legal requirement, not on taking statements or “for triggering prosecutions”. If a prosecution statement is taken but no sale is made, no commission is paid."

Spokesman Phil Kyle added: "We can also confirm the BBC has not requested fewer inspections."

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