Letters: TV licensing

Bombarded with insulting letters by TV Licensing
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Sir: I feel sure that many besides me will have been incensed by Jessica Ray's pious "defence" of the Television Licensing Authority (Letters, 22 April).

For two years now I've had no television and the TLA has known this clearly, yet, despite my complaints, it's still bombarding me with insulting letters peppered with glaring phrases like "official warning - this property is unlicensed", unashamedly advertising their own prejudice that everyone uses a TV and so people who say they don't are probably lying. It's amazing that such cynical quasi-insinuation is legal. Most people naturally understand that if you've absolutely no basis for suspicion against someone it's wrong as well as highly offensive to behave towards them in a way that suggests you have. But not the TLA, which obsessively follows its own laws.

There's absolutely nothing you can do. After I wrote to it recently the TLA actually replied "acknowledging" my situation, yet only 18 days later came the delightful follow-up: "You are hereby notified that we have authorised officers from our Enforcement Division to visit your home and interview you under caution, as our records show there is still no TV Licence at this address and as yet we have received no response to previous communications from you"(!)



Sir: The letter from Jessica Ray on behalf of TV Licensing deserves a response. Like your columnist, I too take great exception to their monthly letters. Ms Ray's point is that TV Licensing is doing the job it is asked to do, which is to enforce the strange and arbitrary rule that a flat fee must be paid in advance for every address at which someone might use, to whatever extent, a non-essential service available at no marginal cost to the provider. In typically British style, this rule is enforced (successfully one supposes) by a system of progressively stern, official-looking letters.

Why do people tolerate this absurdity? Why do the people who watch Newsnight twice a week not object strongly to bankrolling second-rate actors pretending to be cockneys? Why indeed do Eastenders fans not resent their mandatory contribution to the bloated salaries of Paxman et al? The obvious alternative has been shown to work very successfully by Sky, which is to levy fees according to use, or at least pattern of use. All you do is encode the signal, and charge for a means of decoding the bits people want.



Clarke's erosion of civil liberties

Sir: I read Simon Carr's feature on the erosion of civil liberties (15 April) and the Home Secretary's response (24 April) with equal interest.

Charles Clarke urges us not to "confuse the presumption of innocence with the urgent need to prevent acts ranging from antisocial behaviour to terrorism". But wasn't the creation of this very confusion the principal charge that Simon Carr brought against the Government?

If the Home Office felt obliged to issue a 14-page rebuttal of Mr Carr's article, then he must be doing something right. Autocracy has always recognised the combination of truth and humour as a serious threat to its credibility. Simon Carr combines the two qualities admirably.



Sir: Whatever Charles Clarke may say, the Government is seeking to increase the power of the executive at the expense of the judiciary and legislature and the citizen. The Government is increasing its power because of populist fears about terrorism, crime and "anti-social behaviour". Tony Blair, unlike Charles Clarke, has expressly said so. This raises two questions.

First, what is the real rationale for this increase in executive power? A knee-jerk reaction is not enough to overturn well established constitutional checks. The Government needs to produce a reasoned argument for a new balance of power. The lack of any new checks to control the executive suggests that the Government is in fact motivated by its own desire for power. The proper question is not what a good government is currently doing with the extra powers but what a future bad government could do with them.

Second, is it ever right to appeal to short-term populist opinion to justify such an increase in power? Popular opinion might clamour for the imprisonment of suspected paedophiles without proof of guilt. The UK has traditionally protected minorities and the individual against an over-zealous executive by means of, for example, a non-elected judiciary and House of Lords. The Government would like to control the power of the courts and has used the Parliament Act to overrule the House of Lords more than any previous administration. The diminution in the power of these institutions without properly thought-through alternatives will open the door to the possibility of authoritarian rule in this country.



Sir: Reading Charles Clarke's article, I wonder who's getting confused. The presumption of innocence implies the right to a fair trial. Whether I be the person accused of harming others or the person harmed, the lack of a fair trial will not make me feel more protected; nor will it prevent harm in the future. In a similar way, a government that seems to condone Guantanamo makes me feel scared, confused and - unprotected.



Sir: How rich of Clarke to claim that Simon Carr had made a series of "incorrect" and "oversimplified" assertions. This from the man who persists in claiming that ID cards are "voluntary" despite forbidding new passports to anyone who refuses to sign up.



Don't blame deadly flu on wild birds

Sir: I am an ornithologist based in Hong Kong, and since 2003 have followed the spread of H5N1 and the purported role of wild birds. I was surprised to read Sir Hugh Pennington's assertion (letter, 19 March) that "the evidence that these viruses [highly pathogenic avian influenzas] evolve in wild birds and are spread by them is overwhelmingly strong," as this contradicts all evidence I am aware of.

Natural wild bird flus are mild. However, in poultry farms these influenzas can evolve to higher virulence: as the Food and Agriculture Organisation notes, "Outbreaks of HPAI originating from low pathogenic viruses carried from wild birds have occurred relatively frequently in domestic poultry in the last decade." An FAO table lists 28 highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks from 1959 to 2004. All were first recorded in poultry.

There are sound evolutionary reasons for wild bird flus being mild. As noted by the evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald, flu must be directly transmitted from carriers. With wild birds, it is useless to the virus if birds become very sick or die. But in poultry farms, even very sick or dying birds can transmit virus, leading to virulent forms evolving.

These evolutionary principles continue to apply with H5N1. No bird species has been shown to survive and sustain and spread this virus; instead, the vast majority of wild birds confirmed to have been infected with H5N1 were dead. Here in east Asia - the epicentre of H5N1 - there has been no report of H5N1 in a migratory wild bird since last summer.



Right education, wrong price

Sir: I must object to Philip Hensher's derogatory opinions about students' expectations of their now purchased university education ("Students just want schools with better beer", 19 April).

As a first-year student of English and History at Swansea University, I am satisfied with the amount of tuition, roughly six to eight hours per week. Also I, like the vast majority of my peers, am quite content not to be "spoon-fed".

What I and many students do contest is the fact that we have to pay quite substantial fees for a relatively small amount of tuition. The price is the problem, not the education methods. The fees should be going down, not up, especially when lecturers have the audacity to go on strike and refuse to take lectures or mark coursework and examination papers.



Unfair rules for overseas doctors

Sir: I support the objections against visa rule changes for non-EU doctors. Having spent the past year working with a group of predominantly Asian doctors I was inspired by the sacrifices they make in order to become good doctors. Previous visa rules were severe but the new changes rank as inhumane. We should all now be thinking globally, and to deny such doctors equal rights with EU citizens is mediocre. The UK government has also underestimated the scale of their contribution to NHS needs, and will be served right when a shortage of doctors hits crisis point.



Socialists and fascists

Sir: Dominic Lawson (21 April) attempts to equate certain characteristics of Old Labour (anti-Americanism, dislike of personal wealth, preference for state enterprise) with fascism. A more convincing analogy can be drawn between fascism and New Labour, the comparable policies being aggression abroad, suppression of civil liberties at home, increased nationalism (promotion of "Britishness", etc.) and endless propaganda (nowadays called "spin").



Political funds

Sir: Johann Hari (24 April) advocates "a safe clean supply of state funds" to run political parties' campaigns. Safe and clean are perfectly fine, but not "state". Political parties charge a subscription. Their campaign funds should be met from this subscription. No donations, no loans, no enrolling unsuspecting members of the family. One member, one contribution, simple as that. And transparent to auditors, please.



Not a science

Sir: A Dalton fails to understand the difference between science and faith (letter, 24 April). Whereas science fits theories to observable evidence, faith - in this case, creationism - fits cherry-picked evidence to theory. That is why Richard Dawkins and others are so dismissive of creationism. It seeks a debate with science but is not itself scientific, nor will it accept scientific criticism. In those circumstances, the scientific community is quite right to both ignore creationism's quest for a debate and to condemn its encroachment into schools' scientific curricula.



Nuclear nightmare

Sir: The arguments for and against nuclear energy are fairly well known ("After Gazprom's tirade", 22 April), but a more fundamental problem may be the lack of expertise in the UK to design, build and maintain nuclear power plants. Some readers may be able to provide more information about this, but if the lack of incentives to pursue science or engineering degrees in this country, and the number of foreign students carrying out engineering and science based PhDs at UK universities, is anything to go by, there may not be enough British nationals to do the job.



Legal challenge

Sir: Michael Mansfield argues eloquently for transparency about lawyers' earnings (24 April). May we now expect an equally senior member of the barristocracy to make the case for secrecy?