Regular readers may remember our previous vexation on the issue of whether a digital TV (or digital box) can be used to listen to digital radio without a TV licence.
I am revisiting this question now because I have spent this morning reviewing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) responses from the BBC. The BBC, as you may already be aware, is the statutory Licensing Authority, which is wholly responsible for administering, enforcing and collecting the licence fee. The terms "digital TV" and "digital box" are used interchangeably in the remainder of this article, as they are indistinguishable in terms of TV licence law.
On first appearances you might think "radio does not need a TV licence", but it is potentially more complicated than that because a digital TV is installed in exactly the same manner whether it is used to watch TV programmes (which requires a TV licence) or listen to digital radio services (which does not require a TV licence). The auto tune facility on this equipment picks up every available TV channel and radio station. The issue is whether TV Licensing would believe a licence-free person claiming "I only use my digital TV to listen to digital radio" even though licensable TV programmes are only the push of a button away?
The above table, produced by the BBC in response to this FOIA request, summarises the circumstances in which a TV licence is needed to use a digital TV. The table comes from a TV Licensing staff training manual and the third row is of particular interest because it appears to confirm that a digital box, of whatever variety, can be used to listen to digital radio only through a TV without a licence.
The explanatory note accompanying the third row states: "If the customer does not require a TV licence because they only use their digital box to listen to the radio through a TV or an external sound receiver, read the customer the No TV Formal Statement and set a No Licence Needed Claim".
TV Licensing do not volunteer this information, because it is not in their interests to do so. Why is that? I hear you ask. Well, the fact that the BBC has confirmed, in writing, that a digital TV can be used to listen to digital radio without a TV licence, is an own goal.
It means that anyone hauled before a court charged with TV licence evasion could, quite legitimately, offer the fact that their digital TV was installed to listen to digital radio in mitigation. The fact that the visiting officer had flicked through the channels and found a picture was irrelevant, because the occupier only ever used the TV for listening to radio and had no way of tuning it eliminate TV programmes.
I think that is quite a compelling argument, which would certainly make any court think twice before passing judgment.