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BOOK REVIEW


Beating Big Brother
How People Power Turned Off the T.V. Tax!
by
Ian Wishart

Published in 2000 by
The Anti TV Licence Campaign
Orewa
Auckland
New Zealand

ISBN 0-9582054-8-5

cover image

This clear and well-written book tells the story of the run-up to the last days of the TV licensing system in New Zealand. It is a relatively short work of 177 pages covering the events surrounding the abolition of the licence fee; it is interspersed with 12 "Case Studies" or individual accounts of personal dealings with New Zealand's TV licensing body. I found this book surprisingly readable; it was more of a page-turner than some novels I've read.

There are similarities and differences between the TV licensing systems in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. In New Zealand, state broadcasting was only partly funded by the licence fee, the remainder being obtained from advertising. There also seems to have been administrative differences in the collection of that fee and the requirements for a fee to be paid. For example the licensing body considered that any form of television required a licence – even when not used to receive broadcasts. Further, the collection agency – Baycorp – could also adjust a person's credit rating for non-payment (or even apparent non-payment!). The collection system used even more outrageous methods than are currently used in the UK. In New Zealand all manner of blatant ruses, deceitful behaviour and in some instances even apparent fraud were used by the debt collectors. All were considered a "fair cop" as "almost everyone has a TV". Differences aside I would say that this is a must-read for anyone in the UK with an interest in the topics covered on this web site.

The story begins around 1981 when journalist Ned Haliburton was dismissed by Radio New Zealand. In 1984 he discovered the reasons for his dismissal and, considering them to be bogus, in 1990 he began a defamation action against his former employer. In the course of this he ceased paying his licence fee as he did not want to give money to an organisation against which he was currently in conflict in a civil suit. Around this time another key figure, Lindsay Perigo, a current affairs broadcaster, was becoming increasingly disgusted with TVNZ standards. Perigo set up his own radio station, Radio Liberty, and with Deborah Coddington founded a new political party – The Libertarianz. During the course of the campaign, NZ on Air was widely referred to a "NaZis on Air". It was Coddington who initially likened the behaviour of NZ on Air to the Nazis and created this nickname. Perigo's shows continued and were also relayed by Radio Pacific – most notably in Pacific's "The Politically Incorrect Show". Perigo and Haliburton soon became allies in the struggle against NZ on Air and the licence-fee. Haliburton appeared each week on Perigo's "The Politically Incorrect Show".

Having stopped paying the licence fee, it became apparent to Haliburton that licence-fee was not actually a fee but a tax imposed with dubious legality, according to the 1989 Broadcasting Act. He argued that the tax had been issued without being properly passed through Parliament ("no taxation without representation"). He also noticed a loop-hole (Section 82) that seemed to imply exemption and began to publicize the fact. Whether this exemption was valid or not, a lot of people returned their invoices claiming exemption.

In 1995 NZ on Air attempted to recover unpaid licence fees in Court and Haliburton countered by challenging the legality of the TV tax in what became a "David and Goliath" legal action; by this time Haliburton was a pensioner in his mid-70s. Haliburton appealed for funds to fight for the cause – there was an immediate response and thousands of dollars began to pour in. What had began as a local phenomenon in Orewa soon became a nationwide talking point. Although this was a matter of public interest, with huge public support, there was no television coverage of the court case. In the words of Wishart "our much-vaunted television system has not worked in the public interest, certainly in the news sphere, for a very long time, and risks being seen as mere establishment lackeys".

The book tells what happened as events went through the Courts, with subsequent class-actions. I won't go into any detail of the events but will say that much of this is a sad catalogue of difficulties faced by individuals attempting to take action against a government-backed organisation. Double-standards are rife, in Wishart's words "what's good enough for the peasants isn't good enough for their masters"; where technical breaches were brushed aside for the government and individual citizens were severely penalised; where the judicial system was only too ready to shy away from legally correct decisions in favour of judicial pragmatism. As things progressed Haliburton began increasingly to lose faith in the judicial process. Wishart – "In his eyes, it appeared that Judges consider themselves as 'Lions under the throne' – to quote Francis Bacon – whose real task was to uphold the 'establishment' rather than dispense justice. 'They always find a way to back the government'". The book's accounts of the legal proceedings are interesting too from a historical-interest perspective. In the arguments very ancient laws on taxation are cited. It also gives an insight into how protection against unjust taxation has been eroded. In earlier times, laws and Parliament were there to keep monarchs under control. Now the monarch plays only a very minor part in imposing taxes as it all falls to Parliament and there is little to keep a wayward Parliament in check.

In 1998 the public support for Haliburton's case was beginning to take its toll on NZ on Air's finances. In this year they had hoped to collect $123 million – instead they collected $100 million – 300,000 households having refused to pay. Along with the $11.4 million lost in pursuing these cases a total of $34 million dollars were lost.

Haliburton and his supporters continued to press their case though the Courts. Also in parallel with this 207,000 signatures were collected petitioning for the abolition of the tax; this was almost enough to force a referendum. In 1999 the legal action came to an end – Haliburton had not succeeded in proving the the tax was unlawful. To take this further would have meant putting the case before Privy Council and the funds and momentum were not available. However, on the 20th of May 1999, owing to the side-effects of Haliburton's actions, the licence-fee system was deemed no longer workable and abandoned.

Towards the end of the book Wishart mentions the British TV licensing system, but also shows that the UK legal system is somewhat more robust in dealing with its government than the New Zealand system. Wishart gives an interesting account of events in 1975 when the British licence fee was changed from 12 to 18 by the Minister in charge of the Home Office. This change would not be implemented until the end of the month and the public were told not to buy the cheaper licenses (that would overlap by a few days but save 6); despite this licences were sold. The Minister then attempted to revoke the issued licences but was reined in. Wishart quotes Lord Denning "The conduct of the Minister, or the conduct of his department, has been found by the Parliamentary Commissioner to be maladministration" ... "I go further. I say it was unlawful." ..."He had no right whatever to refuse to issue an overlapping licence, or, if issued, to revoke it".

Wishart also refers to the enforcement of the current licensing system in the UK. "Britain has stuck with the tax also, raising it recently to in excess of NZ$300. It has now reached a vicious stage where solo mothers unable to pay have been jailed, and their children placed in the welfare state. What State has the right to do that?" ... "It may seem like something trivial to those outside, but which is the more ancient and honourable right: the right of Government to deduct an entertainment tax, or the right of children to grow up in their mother's care?"

In the summing up at the end of the book Wishart notes how "one small event can have an effect on a nation's history" where the actions of a frail 78 year-old pensioner, and his refusal to follow with the flow but to stop and swim against the tide, brought down a nation's tv licensing system.


Where you might get this book.

It should be possible to get copies from the book designers: Howling at the Moon Publishing here.

It is also listed by Amazon here but seems not to be available from that source.

My copy was second-hand and came from a New Zealand bookseller through ABE Books

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