BBC's TV detecting operation must be secret, rules information watchdog

LONDON - The Information Commissioner's Office has ruled that the BBC does not have to reveal information about its TV detection operation, including how many detector vans it has, to avoid damaging the public's perception of its effectiveness.

The decision comes after a complaint was made against the BBC on October 6, 2006 from an unnamed member of the public. The complainant requested to know how the BBC detects that  someone has a TV in his or her house but does not have a TV licence.

It is known that the BBC uses a combination of mobile vans and enforcement officers with hand-held detection devices to locate the source of a non-licensed TV feed.

Often officers are able to see TV sets from windows of homes where it is shown that no license is held.

The complainant requested to know the number of vans the BBC deploys at any given time, how often and the technical specifications of the detection devices.

The BBC argued that it relies on the threat that vans could be used at any time to catch evaders and releasing details on where the vans would be and when would spur people to not pay their fees.

When the complainant was not satisfied with the response from the BBC the dispute was taken to the ICO.

The assistant information commissioner, Anne Jones, agreed with the BBC, which claimed that releasing the information would damage the public's perception of the effectiveness of TV detection vans. Jones said that if the deterrent effect were lost, some people would not pay their fee.

The BBC also said that details of the technical equipment used in the vans must not be revealed because it would allow people to analyse them and find weakness to evade detection.

Jones found that not releasing the information was in the public interest for legitimate licence fee payers, as it helps the BBC keep the cost of enforcement activities to a minimum, allowing money received from TV licensing to be spent on programming.

She concluded that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the public interest in disclosure and that no further action was required by the BBC.

The public's views on the tactics used by the BBC in its marketing campaigns to ensure people pay their TV licence were recently solicited by the BBC Trust in a 12-week consultation which opened in September.

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