The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

Charles Moore's reflections on the week

5 November 2008

It is so important that the first black President is only half-black. The black side of Barack Obama’s heritage is the non-American bit. His black, Kenyan father was absent. His Hawaiian upbringing was white. One day, he recalls in his autobiography, his white grandparents, who were bringing him up, had a row. His grandmother (who died this week, just too soon to see her grandson elected), told her husband that she did not want to take the bus to work the next day. She asked her husband to drive her instead. He refused, and words were exchanged. Barack asked what was going on. His grandfather told him that she had been harassed at the bus-stop for money. He was annoyed with her because what frightened her particularly about the incident was that the aggressive panhandler had been black. Young Barack thought about this: his grandparents had ‘sacrificed again and again for me… and yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears’. Nothing in Obama’s attitudes or demeanour inspires raw fear. The racist caricature of a black man is of an ape. Obama is a cat. He is agile and stylish and somehow alone. His beautifully judged acceptance speech was cool. As he became part of American history, he spoke almost as an observer of it. Quite right to remind his audience that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, quite right to say to those who did not vote for him ‘I will be your President too’; but the intelligence, the historical sweep, the ability to understand more than one perspective are the opposite qualities of those of the ghetto. His blackness seems skin-deep, which is why people can accept it.

‘Not by the might of our arms, or the scale of our wealth, but for the enduring power of our ideals’ is America the greatest nation, said Obama. True, but arms and wealth help. As he approaches office, that might of arms has faltered and that scale of wealth has slumped. Does this mean, then, that America should end exceptionalism, build coalitions, work through international institutions? You might think so, but the dilemma will quickly present itself. Will other nations respect a weakened America? Will a multilateral world actually be able or willing to project force against the enemies of law and democracy? Will Iran, which has allowed Iraq to go so quiet during the presidential campaign, now produce a challenge even before the new President is in the White House? When President Obama calls the bluff of European powers delighted by his election and asks them to send far more of their own men to fight in Afghanistan, will they shy away? If things go right for Obama, he will restore American leadership which, as he says, requires moral authority. But if they go wrong, he will preside over the decline of American power. Then his fate could resemble that of Gorbachev — hailed abroad for recognising the need for change, excoriated at home for losing a great imperium.

Unlike Gorbachev, though, Obama has real votes. The most moving thing this week is the return of an almost religious respect for the ballot. To think that your one ‘X’ (or chad) among millions makes a difference requires a deep belief in your country’s constitution. But it does: it has.

Claim your gift

Pursuing the BBC’s belief that one must ‘push the boundaries’, I have decided to refuse to renew my television licence fee so long as Jonathan Ross continues to be employed by the Corporation. I shall go on watching television at our house in Sussex, pay the equivalent of the fee to Help the Aged (since the BBC likes persecuting the old) and wait to see what happens. When I disclosed this plan to readers of the Daily Telegraph last week, several emailed to say that they already do this. It was interesting to hear that none of them has been prosecuted. This confirms something I have noticed from my earlier (and continuing) dispute with the BBC about my London flat, where I do not have a television, but constantly receive threatening letters from TV Licensing telling me that I shall go to court unless I get a licence. The threats are never fulfilled. The BBC are in a quandary. If they do not get their licence money, they cannot survive, but if they take action against protestors, they will make martyrs. It is a bluff. I am beginning to think that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

The row about Brand and Ross has been a turning point for many people. Up till now, we have been uncomfortably conscious that the BBC puts out amazingly revolting things, but we have simply tried to avoid them. Rather like residents who dare not venture out on to the streets at night because of yobs, we have despaired. But the Brand/Ross scandal has reminded us that we do, in fact, ‘have ownership’ of the BBC, and we are being denied owners’ rights. The favourite argument that ‘If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it’ makes no sense if you are made to pay for it. It is like going to a café and being told that if you want a nice cup of tea you will also be charged for a plate of dogshit. And then it turns out that the charge for the biggest piece of dogshit — Jonathan Ross — is £6 million a year. Sorry to use this unpleasant image, but I thought it might be ‘edgy’ enough to fit the bill.

‘I worry,’ says Matthew Bannister, a former BBC panjandrum, ‘that the BBC will become more cowed by this affair.’ Cowed by whom? Think of the Flanders and Swann song, ‘Ma’s out, Pa’s out,/ Let’s talk rude./ Pee, po, belly, bum, drawers.’ Ross/ Brand/Mock the Week (which makes gerontophobic jokes about the Queen’s sexual organs)/ Little Britain/ numerous foul-mouthed telly chefs, etc, etc, resemble these naughty children. Mark Thompson and other senior BBC executives are like parents who come home and, instead of sending the children to bed without any supper, nervously applaud their rude words. So they get ruder. ‘F***! C***! W***!’ they yell, and make jokes about masturbating about Mrs Thatcher (Ross), or how they crippled a woman by raping her (Little Britain USA), or whatever. ‘Clever children,’ say the parents, ‘let us give you more money!’ The BBC bosses have been cowed for years by their feral children. We are asking them to stop being cowed, and to exercise their parental authority, for which, unlike real parents, they are very well paid.

Most eloquent on this subject have been teenagers of my acquaintance and people in their twenties. They are angry at the BBC’s idea that Ross is the acclaimed voice of their generation. He is, after all, only four years younger than I. The most common description I hear of him from my children’s generation is that he is a ‘dirty old man’.

Give the perfect gift this Christmas. Buy a subscription for a friend for just £75 and you’ll receive a free gift too. Buy now.

Show comments
  • Ross Burns

    Charles Moore is correct in his analysis of the parents being cowed and thus letting the children grow only vulgar, not up, or wiser. Another preventable thing might happen at the BBC soon and it’s to do with Alistair Campbell – he of the whip when the BBC is near – and it’s that, though it’s only an educated hunch, his new book will probably end up as either book of the week or book at bedtime on Radio 4. Why should it?

  • robert peterson

    Mr Obama: it is not about being black! What is so good about being white? We all sweat and leak in the same places and now there is a new shade: Yellow!! will Obama deliver or will he turn out to be a disaster? How do we know? Do we take a bet on him and if so what are the odds.

  • Bob Silentio

    I hope that Charles Moore’s ideas about resistance to the licensing fee of the BBC will find a national response. The little Sachs guy had enough bad stuff in his life – the ones who embarassed him in old age have not had nearly enough.

  • Stephen Brad

    I once knew someone who has not paid his TV licence on principle since he started living in blocks of flats, in three different places altogether, from about seven years ago. He tells me that in this type of accommodation people do not usually answer the door anyway unless they are expecting a parcel or can look out of the window to check who it is. Therefore he repeatedly goes through the cycle of letters from TVL. The letters must be viewed as attempts to imply far more powers than their agents actually have, with words like CRIMINAL and COURT boldly displayed all over the place. Some are quite imaginative, eg they have one where you pull it open along a dotted line like a credit card pin number. He just thinks ‘another 30p they have spent’. They say ‘we have agents in the area’ and coinciding with this threat there was a man who came a few times who could have been from them. He parked at the end of the road to hide his car when there are better spaces right in front of the flats. Then he rang, waited ten minutes and rang again. Then he stood on the other side of the road looking to see if anyone is at the window. Then after a few visits he gave up and never came back again. Remember he is on commission and does not want to waste his time. If he had been a debt collector for a previous tenant the visit would have been followed up with letters, so I can only think it was TVL. You do not have to let anyone in your property. If the tenant had ever spoken to an agent of the BBC he would have just said ‘I am very busy and cannot speak to you now about anything. You can leave a message if you want. And I would never let anyone in without a prearranged appointment even if I was not busy.’ He would not answer the question ‘are you the tenant?’ but if pressurised to do so he would have said no, he was a visitor.

    Stephen Bradley

  • Stephen Brad

    The following document was on a website in 2003. I cannot remember the name of the website owner but it was something like Brokowsky, and he had a petition for people to sign

    The following was added on the original website

    Noticed some additional comments and “facts” on the latest intimidating letter from the TVLA ? – here they are:
    “… To help us update our records please write to us at TV Licensing … stating that you do not use a television. We will contact you in due course, just to confirm the situation.”

    Helping out the TVLA keeping their records up to date is the very last thing you should do. If, for whatever reason, you do not need a TV Licence then … well … you are not breaking the law so why should you provide the TVLA with a statement ?

    You are not at all obliged to contact the TVLA. There is no law that says you have to make statements – just ignore these people.
    Keep in mind that these statements are only useful to be used against you.

    Using sophisticated equipment on unlicensed household, we can identify if a TV is being watched within 20 seconds.

    Whether the TVLA does or does not have electronic gadgetry to play “big brother”, fact is that no-one has never been convicted based upon “evidence” gathered by means of this type of electronic spying, which is in fact a breach of privacy.

    If we suspect that an offence is taking place, we are authorised to request a search warrant if we cannot gain access.

    Getting a search warrant involves spending money so they are used much less frequently than people think. If the TVLA has the evidence to get a warrant and they also have your name, then they will usually go straight to issuing you with a summons to bring you to court. This is administratively far more cost-effective.

    Never ever let a TVLA Enquiry Officer, without search warrant, in your home. Do not speak to him/her – do not make a statement and do not sign.

    We may caution you in compliance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and use your statement as evidence in your prosecution.

    Now this is what it’s all about. As a profit making company the TVLA [Capita] depends heavily on people admitting that they do not have a TV Licence. The statement, signed by those who admit, is then used against you. This is a very cost effective way of operations for the TVLA.

    Again… never ever let a TVLA Enquiry Officer, without search warrant, in your home. Do not speak to him/her – do not make a statement and do not sign.

    The original was pdf so I have removed some of the formatting.



    The purpose of a visit from a Television Enquiry Officer is to gather information that you have a television, but that you do not have a licence. You can always ask him to come back when you have had a chance to get some legal advice, before you answer his questions.
    REMEMBER Television Enquiry Officers must interview you under caution, if they are to use their visit as evidence against you in court. The caution says:
    You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence. Do you understand?
    So, if you answer questions, those answers can be read out in court, but:
    This means “anything”.
    You do not have to tell the enquiry officer your name, you do not have to tell him whether or not you have a television, or if you live at the address, or if you have a licence.


    No surprises here. Television Licensing officers are not paid to think for themselves, they have a list of questions to ask in every case. They are:
    Post Code:
    Are you the occupier?
    Do you have a television licence on the premises?
    Do you have a licence?
    If no administer caution:
    “You do not have to say anything. It may harm your defence if you do not mention when
    questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence. Do you understand?”
    Time of caution:
    May I inspect the set?
    Inspection details: Black and white/colour
    Channels tested?
    Was there a video recorder?
    When was the set installed?
    When did you first use the set without an appropriate licence?
    When did you last use the set?
    Do you have satellite or cable?
    If yes which channels do you watch?
    What is your date of birth?
    What is your occupation or status?
    I have to tell you that you may be prosecuted for an offence under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949. Is there anything you want to say? You will than be asked to buy a television licence, “without prejudice”, or in other words pay for a licence and still run the risk of being prosecuted. They will then ask you to sign the interview record as accurate, but you
    don’t have to do so.


    You are being asked questions because they know you don’t have a licence, but they don’t know who you are, or if you are using a television. If you tell them who you are and you say you are using a television, they will usually take you to court.
    If you don’t tell them you stand a better chance of not being taken to court as they don’t know who you are, or if you have a television. If they knew that in the first place there would be no need for them to call.
    They can only come into your home if you let them in (Can I inspect the set?), or if a magistrate grants them a search warrant. They will only get a search warrant if they can satisfy the magistrate there are reasonable grounds to suspect you have a television for use on the premises.



    Every one is entitled to receive a public funding certificate to cover magistrates’ court proceedings free of charge, even if they are a millionaire. If you want advice, you need to see a solicitor who deals in criminal law. Details of solicitors offering legal help can be found from the Legal Services Commission. Alternatively look in yellow pages for any solicitor displaying the Criminal Defence Service logo. If you are on income support, income based job seekers allowance, or working families’ tax credit, you will qualify for free legal help before you go to court. You may also qualify for this help of you are on a low income. Many solicitors will offer you a free first interview anyway. Ask a solicitor for details.


    The Magistrates’ Courts’ Act 1980 allows the TV Licence authority 6 months to tell the magistrates’ clerk they want a summons issuing. If they are too late its just too bad; they cannot prosecute you.
    There are two ways of pleading guilty. You will have received a form with your summons that you can return to the court, saying that you want to plead guilty, or you can attend the hearing.


    Television licensing courts expect get through 60 – 70 cases in a court session. They do not expect many people to turn up and they expec
    t most of those who do not come to plead guilty by letter. If they don’t do that, and don’t attend, the TV Licensing officers will ask to have the case “proved in absence”. This means that the statement that the TV Enquiry officer made when he visited you and his “interview” will be read out. The magistrates will then find you guilty, and you will normally be fined £150 to £200 and ordered to pay the TV Licensing officers costs (currently £45.00). If you turn up and plead guilty, the magistrates must listen to what you have to say. They will probably fine you about the same amount and order you to pay the costs, but it will take them longer and they will have to consider your case in greater depth.


    Yes; you can either use the form to tell the court you are “not guilty”, in which case the magistrates will adjourn the case to a trial date, when you must attend, and the trial will take place. You should plead “not guilty” if you do not have television receiving equipment installed, or if you had a licence when the enquiry officer called. If you were promised you wouldn’t be prosecuted, or if you have any doubts what to do, you should see a solicitor.
    You are supposed to be given a discount if you plead guilty, but the magistrates will still fine you, and they will fine you more for not having a television licence than they would have fined you if you had stolen something or hit someone in most cases.


    The power of the TV Licence agency to prosecute people is being challenged in a number of test cases, which are based on European law. The result will not be known for some time. A solicitor can advise you how you can have your case challenged in the same way.

  • fred smith

    Isn’t it quite amazing that throughout all the coverage of the US elections especially on the BBC (thats the Barack Broadcasting Company, all the talk about the first black president,all the talk of dreams coming true, all the talk of change, and yes we can, that some inhabitants of the USA have been completly ignored.

    I read somewhere that native americans could not vote because they did not have a permanent address, and that the only address they had was the US Post office on the reservation.

  • Christopher Blount

    Re: Jonathan Ross

    Well done, Charles Moore.

    I have joined the ranks of TV licence ‘refuseniks’. When I cancelled my direct debit I was promptly re-imbursed with the full licence fee and I have now received a renewal notice, which I am ignoring.

    Is there a rallying website where I can see how others are dealing with the matter?

Can't find your Web ID? Click here