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Tom Sutcliffe: You've got it wrong, Mr Moore

Tuesday 11 August 2009 00:00 BST

When I worked for the BBC about 25 years ago it was a widespread belief that being fingered for not paying your licence fee was an offence that would lead to instant dismissal. I certainly recall a senior producer informing me that this was one bill I should never be late in paying – the consequences of forgetfulness being so serious.

I don't know whether this is true – or just a folk tradition which has never been officially contradicted – but if the rule does exist it clearly doesn't apply to contributors. Last week Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, appeared on Radio 4's Any Questions – introduced as a deliberate licence-fee defaulter. And the BBC must have been aware of this fact since, as Moore explained in a Telegraph column last month, what was still a provisional breach of the law at the time of writing would become actual on 31 July. He even wondered whether his Any Questions invitation would be rescinded.

Mr Moore's act of civil disobedience stems from his disgust at the way the Corporation handled the Jonathan Ross affair. In his view a three-month suspension didn't nearly match the severity of the offence – or the affront of Ross's pay deal. He also argued that the BBC was in breach of its charter duty to sustain "citizenship and civil society". So he announced that, while retaining a TV set, he would not pay the fee until Ross's contract was terminated. Instead he sent his £142.50 fee to Help the Aged and effectively dared the Licensing authorities to take him to court.

In this I think he betrays some confusion of understanding. For one thing the licence fee is a tax on the possession of a television and its connection with BBC funding has only conventional rather than legal force. Paying for a licence entitles you to watch programmes – not to get a casting vote in how the BBC actually conducts itself. And, perhaps deliberately, Moore confuses a past offence and current conduct in order to justify his continuing refusal to obey the law.

The BBC, after all, did not ignore the incident and has taken many wearisome steps to prevent a repetition – including preventing Ross from broadcasting his radio show live. The disagreement is only over whether the measures taken went far enough. So by Charles Moore's logic, anybody – having decided that a particular part of the BBC's massive output is in breach of its Charter duties (or an individual broadcaster) – can legitimately refuse to pay the licence fee until a redress that they have dictated is put in place.

I might, for example, argue that it is no part of "sustaining citizenship and civil society" to allow libellous inaccuracies to be broadcast to the nation – libels, indeed, that might even lead to violence. Six days after Charles Moore insisted on the sacking of Jonathan Ross, for instance, the BBC was obliged to pay £45,000 to the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Churches, after a panellist on Question Time had accused its leader of condoning the murder of British troops. In fact, as the BBC accepted in court, Dr Muhammed Bari had publicly stated that the killing of British troops in Iraq was unacceptable.

This quite unnecessary waste of public money was the result of on-air statements made by one Charles Moore – whose own brush with the difficulties of live broadcasting doesn't seem to have made him more understanding of the errors of others.

I won't be refusing to pay my licence fee until he's permanently struck off the Any Questions guest list – but I still find it startling that he remains on it while publicly flouting the system that allows for the BBC's continued existence. I'm not exactly sure, either, how he reaches down from his high horse to pick up the fee for his Any Questions appearance– it being morally ambiguous, to say the least, to condemn an institution for damaging civil society and simultaneously work for it. Perhaps he's waived his fee. If not I can't help hoping that his cheque, when it eventually arrives, will be short by £142.50.

Edinburgh Fringe is the free market gone wild

The Edinburgh Festival is now beginning to look like an experimental model for the competing economic theories of the last century.

On the one hand you have the official festival, which adopts a kind of Soviet central planning approach to the provision of culture. The offerings are in relatively short supply, and their selection – however enigmatically – is obedient to some guiding ideology. On the other hand you have the Fringe – a sprawling shanty town of pure entrepreneurial opportunism.

And as Kath Mainland, chief executive of the Fringe, explains in the foreword to the 288-page listings book, they don't "programme or prescribe". This is unregulated, Milton Friedman culture – a pure exercise in supply and demand, undistorted by the Trades Descriptions Act, the Monopolies Commission or pricing regulations.

Flicking through the Fringe programme, with its string of competing superlatives (just how many "finest female comedians" has one town got room for?) you're reminded of an unholy combination of American supermarket and a Delhi bazaar. Seventy-two varieties of toothpaste and no guarantee that any of them will actually do what they claim. And contrary to the beliefs of the free marketeers, it's increasingly difficult not to believe that the bad is now effectively driving out the good. Someone has to work out a way to give us punters less choice.

Best not to look in the mirror

It was a bit disturbing to read that scientists have established a link between facial symmetry and the decline of men's mental faculties in later years (they can't reliably identify a connection in the case of women).

Looking in the mirror gets a more unpleasant experience with every passing day – only made bearable, in fact, by the kindly dispensation that has established a neat ratio between the increasing blurriness of one's close-up vision and the unloveliness of the face squinting back at you. It is the one upside of increasing farsightedness – that nature smears Vaseline over the lens.

Put your spectacles on, though, and the clarity is unnerving. Now – in addition to monitoring the slow inexorable sag of jowl and neck – we're going to find it next to impossible not to check out our bilateral symmetry, a tricky business at the best of time. I can imagine standing there thinking, "Do I look more lopsided than I did yesterday, or is it my mind that's going."

I think I'm going to train myself to shave by touch alone – and spare myself the daily ordeal.

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