Why the British elites were determined to suppress ‘pirate’ radio

Richard Rudin, Liverpool John Moores University

15 November 2018


In August 2017, in the midst of the ‘silly season’, newsrooms around the UK had the excuse to indulge in one of their favourite types of story: an anniversary of an event in popular culture. It was 50 years since the coming into effect of the Marine (etc.) Broadcasting (Offences) Act (MBOA), which was designed, and to a large extent succeeded, in banishing from the airwaves a veritable pop armada of ‘pirate’ radio ships off the British coasts.

The anniversary was marked by numerous broadcast and print features, a special weekend service on BBC local radio from a former Lightship, on the Essex coast, featuring some of the original 1960s DJs, and even a two-day convention.

Contrary to the information in much of the media, the coming into force of the Act did not spell the end of offshore radio. Both of the two Radio Caroline ships (one based off Essex, the other off the coast of the Isle of Man) stayed on air for over six more months, until both were boarded in the early hours of March 3rd, 1968; the transmitters were silenced without warning to staff and listeners, and the ships towed away by a company which was claiming unpaid debts for its tendering service. This March 3rd, Roger Day, who was due to host the breakfast show on the southern ship on that fateful morning 50 years ago, finally put to air that broadcast-that-never-was, on Radio Caroline, now available both on an authorised, albeit low-power AM frequency, and online.

The term ‘pirate radio’ has been used for many kinds and forms of unauthorised services, including, in the UK, onshore, mostly urban stations. This Blog – based on the presentation I made to IAMHIST 2017 in Paris, France – is concerned with the reaction by the UK elites to radio stations broadcasting from ships or former anti-aircraft forts around the British coast, which were able to broadcast without a license through being outside the then three mile legal limit of UK law. They broadcast at a time when the BBC had only a few hours a week of ‘pop’ music, in heavily-scripted and highly produced shows, with the only other radio outlet targeting the British pop-loving audience being the evenings-only Radio Luxembourg, whose output was dominated by programmes sponsored by – and consisting only of releases from – the four big record companies.

Although offshore stations had existed before in Europe, with one even providing a short-lived English-language service, and stations spasmodically continued until 1990, this Blog will concentrate on the best-known period and the one in which the stations had the biggest impact: those of the mid-1960s.

The ‘pirates’ of this period can be firmly seen as part of popular culture and collective memory, commemorated in movies, TV programmes and various forms of media nostalgia. My paper argued though that the real threat posed by the pirate stations was not the flouting of the law – domestic and international – or even their supposed challenge to the mores of the day from lascivious disc-jockey chatter and ‘wild’ rock records, but for the fact they represented a challenge to Britain’s post-war consensus in politics and economics.

Although it was not the most successful – commercially or, probably, in audience terms – it is Radio Caroline which proved to be the most enduring pirate station. It was on air, in various iterations, for over a quarter of a century, and has the name most likely to be suggested if the British public is asked to name one of the offshore, pirate stations.

The choice of the name of Caroline by the station’s founder, Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly –  according to a number of interviews given by him over the years – was inspired by Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F Kennedy. The specific inspiration, O’Rahilly said, was from a photo he’d seen in a magazine, showing the infant Caroline crawling under her father’s desk in the Oval Office during a high-powered meeting. Rather than shoo his daughter out, or call for a Nanny, Kennedy stopped the meeting and took a few minutes to play with her. That, O’Rahilly said, was exactly right for his radio station: playful, disruptive; the most powerful man in the world realising that some things were even more important than conferences. It is not hard to see the attraction of the Kennedys to O’Rahilly: they too were Irish outsiders; they represented youth, idealism and a challenge to the existing order. The outsider taking on the establishment was certainly core to O’Rahilly’s self-image and one which he projected onto the station.

In an interview for BBC Radio 1’s The Story of Pop, broadcast on 26 January 1974, O’Rahilly said:

It was part of the revolution. It was the thing that was in their homes every day. It was the realisation …it was a little ship and a bunch of young people doing it against the entire sort of forces of the establishment. And I think it…totally revolutionised the music scene and it established in people’s heads once and for all that people wanted to listen to music any time they wanted to listen to music, day or night.

The restrictive practices embedded in the then radio monopoly provided the initial impetus of the launch of Radio Caroline. Ronan O’Rahilly was in his early 20s, from a by then wealthy Irish family and was involved in the London nightclub ‘scene’, and was trying to promote a singer from the north of England who was white but had a very black, soul and bluesy sound.

O’Rahilly recalled in an interview broadcast in the BBC TV documentary Caroline 199 – A Pirate’s Tale, first broadcast on BBC-2 on 1 March 1991:

We went (to) independent recording which was something that didn’t happen in those days, ever. And having done that I remember taking the acetate along to the BBC, who had I think an hour a week (of pop music), and then there was a few hours on Radio Luxembourg at night, which was a bit intermittent signal-wise, and if you weren’t EMI or Decca (record labels) you couldn’t get on Luxembourg. And at that moment I said to them: “Look, all I want to do is to break Georgie Fame, and get him off the ground and I’ve had to record the guy; I’ve had to start a record label, and now it looks like I’ve got to start a radio station”, and it literally was that kind of moment.

But what started as a pragmatic solution to achieving airplay for a new recording artiste seems to have quickly crystallised into something more profound: Ian Ross, who was also in the London ‘scene’ and also had a wealthy father, recalled in the same documentary that O’Rahilly had accessed some research about the potential for a pirate station:

I remember these were his (O’Rahilly’s) exact words: “A small survey on the south coast has been carried out and we’ve established the fact that if a ship…was parked off the south coast…with a transmitter on it the whole f*****g country would tune in and turn on”, and that’s it.

Ranged against the stations were those who defended the BBC monopoly, not least of course in the BBC, which connived and conspired with the government to silence the pirates and prevent the thing it feared – an alternative, licensed, land-based system of commercial radio. They believed such a service could herald a collapse in the audiences for BBC radio, as had been experienced to its TV service in the earlier days of ‘independent’ television.

The corrupting and self-enforcing nature of monopolies was something that economists and intellectuals of the free market persuasion had long argued. In his seminal work, The Road to Serfdom, Friederich Hayek wrote:

The machinery of monopoly becomes identical with the machinery of the state, and the state itself becomes more and more identified with the interests of those who run things than with the interests of the people.

Undoubtedly, the pirate stations de facto ended the BBC’s monopoly, reaching, according to some estimates, as many as 22 million listeners on Sunday mornings alone.

But on the programming side of the 1960s iteration, a study of the programme schedules and output of the pirate stations, including the two Caroline services, reveals a very different approach than would be assumed from much that has been written and portrayed of the stations, not least in the 2009 Richard Curtis movie The Boat That Rocked (named Pirate Radio for the US release). The idea of pirate disc-jockeys constantly pushing the bounds of good taste and decency on air, using obscene language, surrounded by nubile young women, who stayed on board for the sexual gratification of staff and visitors, not least a 17-year-old boy desperate to lose his virginity, is very far from the reality – at least of most of the stations, most of the time.

Not all the stations even broadcast pop or rock music – several were so-called ‘sweet’ music stations and one broadcast a magazine programme, rather akin to the BBC’s Woman’s Hour.

But perhaps the most interesting misrepresentation in Curtis’s movie is that the anti-pirate government of the day is clearly portrayed as Conservative. In a key scene to establish this, the severe and humourless minister, Sir Alistair Dormandy, played by Kenneth Branagh, describes the listeners to the fictional Radio Rock as: “…the drug-takers and the law-breakers and the bottom-bashing fornicators of our recently great country.”

Unlike the impression given in The Boat That Rocked though, the main political opposition to the pirates came not from the Conservative party (which could number many members of the House of Commons and House of Lords who, even if they did not wholly endorse such stations,  certainly supported breaking the BBC’s continued official monopoly of radio), but from the Labour party. This came to power with a small House of Commons majority in October 1964 and was re-elected with an overall majority of nearly a hundred in the general election of March 1966. The major figure and embodiment of opposition to the ‘pirates’ for much of the key period was not, therefore, a stuffy, reactionary Conservative minister, but the relatively young rising star, the then Labour centrist Anthony Wedgwood Benn, later to be one of the key figures on the left-wing in the party and known latterly as plain Tony Benn.

With the quaint title of Postmaster-General, in public he certainly seemed to have a very severe attitude towards the pirates. In numerous interviews in the press and TV, Benn outlined the chief objections to the stations which can be summarised as:

  • They operated on frequencies which had been allocated to other countries under international agreements and the broadcasts interfered with ‘legitimate’ stations and caused complaints to be made to the UK Government.
  • The broadcasts compromised ship to shore communications and even distress signals, so could endanger life.
  • They used copyrighted music without payment to the various bodies which collected and then distributed money to creators of the recordings, and so were essentially parasites – using the artistic efforts of others for their own financial gain and also threatened the livelihood of musicians.
  • By operating just outside the law, and beyond the remit of any government, they challenged the rule of law, and created an anarchic atmosphere which could affect the stability of society and the public’s faith in the authorities.

Linked to that was a further charge – which, as will be seen, was given substance – that behind the apparent innocence and happy chatter and ‘fun’ of the stations, lay criminal and even sinister forces.

The pirates need not have been explicitly controversial or provocative to have caused a very strong reaction – their very existence and popularity proved a rebuke to the elites and a threat to the foundations of what those elites regarded as the essential characteristics of both a communal identity and a civilised society.

The conviction that personal and group restraint against instinctive actions and desires, especially of a sexual nature, was an essential, even prerequisite for civilisation, has been approved by a very wide range of actors and intellectuals across European nations. In his book Civilization and Its Discontents, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud outlines the “increased stimulation” that is needed for recuperation in modern society – the work was published in 1930 – and notes that: “Our ears are excited and over-stimulated by large doses of noisy, obtrusive music.”

The US, or at best mid-Atlantic sound of the pirates, was only part of the objections by both traditional, establishment conservatives and left-wingers in the UK to pirate radio. On the conservative/establishment right the stations embodied a direct attack on Britain; polluting, vulgarising and debasing a sophisticated, intellectual and civilised culture.

These views and objections dovetailed with those on the intellectual left: to them, the pirate stations represented the commodification of culture, the packaging of passive and easily swayed audiences to advertisers, and an imposition of commercialisation into a medium that, they believed, should be used to enrich and nurture people’s lives. They argued this should be financed, as with the BBC, by a communally paid fund in the public interest. Their view was, in short, that the airwaves were a public resource and should be used for public benefit, not private profit.

Hostility to aspects of post-war popular culture from the left and claims about its malign influence, was not new. Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy was published almost a decade before Radio Caroline came on air. In one chapter, Hoggart provides his interpretation of the lives, thinking and influences of teenage boys and young men who frequent what he calls ‘milk-bars’ and are in the thrall of ‘nickelodeans’, or juke boxes. The males who plough their money into these machines are, he suggests:

…living to a large extent in a myth-world compounded of a few simple elements which they take to those of an American life…perhaps most of them are less intelligent than the average, and are therefore even more exposed to the debilitating mass-trends of the day.

In his 2007 book Media and Communication, Paddy Scannell argues that there is a more positive approach to the conformity and homogenization of output aimed at a mass audience: the reluctance to offend necessarily requires more tolerance:

This ability to recognize and accept the otherness of people is powerfully augmented by the mass media who are tutors in political tolerance for other-directed individuals…Their style…is emollient. Their manner is sociable and sincere.

In an interview for the aforementioned Caroline 199 – A Pirate’s Tale, Benn was clearly in no doubt that the pirate stations were a conscious attack on the nature of British society at the time – a challenge of which he seemed in his latter years to have approved, believing the stations were: “… part of an attack upon a very, very conservative society”.

Reflecting on them later, though, in that BBC documentary, he thought they might have helped the establishment at a time of great social and political turmoil:

The other side of the ‘60s, which was the anti-Vietnam war movement, the challenge to the established order, were never reflected on commercial radio or pirate radio. They just continued to pump out the music, and in a way the establishment came to like the pirates because they offered what I think they realised they had to concede – unlimited pop culture and sexual liberation as a way of diverting and diffusing the pressure for social change.

Benn’s criticism undoubtedly has credence with most of the pirate stations. The diversionary element of the pirates, especially away from challenges to the dominant political ideology of the day, might well have been noted by Noam Chomsky. In his 1989 collection of lectures, Necessary Illusions – Thought Control in Democratic Societies, he argues that: “In a democratic political order, there is always the danger that independent thought might be translated into political action, so it is important to eliminate the threat at its root.”

Moreover, as Erving Goffman notes in the section ‘Radio Talk’ in Forms of Talk (1981): “The issue, then, is not what offends the listener, but what a listener might offend some listener or other” [original emphasis].

It is, difficult though, given the nature of their output, to imagine how the pirates might have included a sustained critique of, say, the war in Vietnam, outside the broadcasting of ‘protest songs’. As has been noted, the pirates of the ‘60s were mainly about the avoidance of controversy, even if they did play some records which were excluded from the BBC airwaves (the Corporation has always maintained that it never ‘bans’ records; it just advises producers to avoid some tracks!). As the main purpose for most of the stations was to build as big and loyal audience as possible to sell to advertising agencies, the avoidance of controversy might be seen as imperative.

The shooting dead of a pirate radio operator by a rival in an English country house in June 1966 provided the impetus, indeed excuse, for the government – buoyed by its recent general election success – to introduce an anti-pirate radio bill. Whilst this could not outlaw stations broadcasting outside the UK government’s jurisdiction, it could and did provide for criminal sanctions to any UK company or individual British citizen promoting, advertising on, supplying or working for such a station.

As the MBOA entered its final parliamentary stages in the spring of 1967, the two Caroline stations ran on and off-air campaigns to defeat Labour and promote the Conservatives in local council elections. The off-screen reporter in ‘The O’Rahilly File’, an episode of the ITV-networked World In Action programme, broadcast on 25 September, 1967, some five months after those elections, editorialised that:

The propaganda they broadcast in support for their own interests in the Greater London and Liverpool municipal elections was irresponsible, even in the anarchists’ rulebook, and the threats to smear the character of politicians cost them more in respect than it brought them in sniggers.

After the closedown of most of the stations on or by August 14 1967, the date set for the imposition of the new law, the now out of work DJs were mobbed as they returned to shore, in scenes akin to ‘Beatle-mania’. As noted at the start of this Blog, only one station, Caroline (on its both North and South services) decided to defy the law and carry on broadcasting.

At midnight, in a broadcast that has been variously estimated to have been listened to by between 20 and 30 million across Europe, the South ship of Radio Caroline International, as it was now to be known, broadcast a rousing rendition of the civil rights’ anthem We Shall Overcome. DJ Johnnie Walker, acknowledging that they were now alone, declared that “the station belongs to you…and we love you…Caroline continues.” This was immediately followed by a track from The Beatles from that year, All You Need Is Love.

Within hours Johnnie Walker had recorded and broadcast his extraordinary Man’s Fight for Freedom polemic, which was to be replayed many times over the following weeks. Over stirring, martial music, Walker characterises the determination of the authorities to silence Radio Caroline as part of an epic, historic and continuing battle for liberty, and fantasises about the station being legalised – sailing up the Thames, no less, beaming out love and music to ecstatic crowds and a repentant government. The connection between Britain standing defiantly alone against Nazi-dominated Europe in 1940 – barely a quarter of a century before – and the noble radio station, now the only pirate station to fail to ‘surrender’ and to stay on air, against seemingly impossible odds, was implicit.

Extraordinarily, Labour, which in its 1960s governments had ended official censorship of   theatres, backed a bill to partially de-criminalise homosexual acts between men, legalized abortion, effectively ended capital punishment, and brought in the first anti-discrimination Race Relations Act, had allowed itself to be depicted as the party of repression, and the Conservatives of freedom and opportunity.

In the post-August ’67 period, Radio Caroline certainly developed a critique of society overall and postulated alternatives to the ‘military-industrial complex’, although this may not have found favour with Benn’s ideas of empowerment through collectivism. Through O’Rahilly, a philosophy based on non-violence, individual liberty and free choice, went much deeper than campaigning for alternative radio services to the BBC. In the aforementioned  World In Action programme, O’Rahilly – asked about his political views – states: “I suppose I’m an anarchist.”

A study of interviews with him over several decades suggests that Libertarianism best described his political philosophy. It was certainly virulently anti-Socialist, as he saw Socialism as all about controlling and limiting people’s lives. This view was undoubtedly enforced by the actions of the 1966-70 Labour government in the UK in trying to close down the pirate stations.

O’Rahilly told that programme that he believed his phone was being ‘tapped’, and indeed claimed that “a friend“ of his, an MP, had told him so. Asked if he thought those in authority regarded him as an enemy of the state, he replied that:

I would say one or two official people I have spoken to on the subject who regard me as something far worse than an enemy of the state. I mean some of them believe in their mind that to bring back hanging would be too moderate a view for what is going on….you’re challenging every belief they have in their body and therefore they’re not prepared to compromise. They’re not prepared to consider maybe there’s something else going on and we don’t understand it.

O’Rahilly is clearly more interested in challenging the underlying cause of violence – whether by the state or other actors – rather than the specific manifestation of the war in Vietnam. He believes in challenging authority and ideas that were negative and destructive; in particular the emphasis on materialism and the conditioning of people to the normalisation of violence, through the actions of governments: “We have to challenge because we have to come up with a new system”, he tells the World In Action programme. He advocates the breaking up of countries into thousands of new ones, to prevent a small group of people becoming too powerful and controlling the population. The reporter voice-over says by way of conclusion towards the end of the programme:

What is interesting about O’Rahilly is a lot of what he says represents the feelings of an increasing number of young people who are choosing all sorts of ways of showing their dissatisfaction of the way society is run. Whether they join the rebels of previous generations in the respectable city suburbs is yet to be seen but it would be unwise not to recognise their potential as a political influence.

The fascination with the Kennedys and their promise of change in politics, continued long after the death of the man whose daughter provided the station name, with the focus switching to President Kennedy’s brother, Robert. In Caroline 199 – A Pirate’s Tale, Ian Ross recalls dinners organised by an Anglo-Irish society in in London that would receive transatlantic calls from Senator Bobby Kennedy “to the youth of Britain, and Ronan would take the tapes to Number 10” (Downing Street), for Prime Minister Harold Wilson to hear.

Further evidence that O’Rahilly’s views were than a short-lived, vogueish pose, is provided by the fact that the 1970s iterations of Radio Caroline were even more rooted in the hippy-ish ideals of the late ‘60s than they had been during that time. The Times reported on 18 June 1973 that in the previous week the station had broadcast a two and a half minute appeal six times: “…from the Nursing Mothers Association of Australia, aimed at the women of France…It was a plea to the mothers of France to influence their Government to stop the proposed tests.” In 1974 the station supported a ‘Loving Awareness’ festival at Stonehenge which became involved in a High Court battle (The Times, 13 August, 1974).

The pirates’ output, I argue then, in what is an apparent paradox both moulded a mass taste but also privileged individuality and tolerance. It was social collectivism that was side-lined, as this threatened mass consumption of consumer goods and their ‘planned obsolescence’.

The stations can, I think, be seen as part of the sometimes painfully slow, sometimes head-spinningly fast, post-war adjustment for a country that was faced with a loss of empire and uncertainty about its power and position in the world; a boom in young people coming of age; huge changes to social attitudes and sexual mores, and a substantial increase in disposable incomes. The elites – both conservative and socialist radical – were right to be concerned by the challenge the stations posed, both to tradition and of communal ideas of service and public ownership in the ‘post-war settlement’. The pirate stations can be regarded as the outriders to fundamental changes in the British economy and culture, which developed full-throttle in the 1980s.

Richard Rudin is a Senior Lecturer in journalism and broadcasting at Liverpool John Moores University. He has been a journalist, presenter, producer and Programme Controller in various UK radio stations, BBC and commercial, as well as British forces’ broadcasting in Germany. He is a past Chair of the International Division of the Broadcast Education Association. HIs publications include Broadcasting in the 21st Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); he was one of the key contributors to the three-volume Encyclopedia of Radio (Fitzroy Dearborn, 2003) and has had work published in journals both on British broadcasting history and on digital radio. In addition to the UK and mainland Europe, he has presented papers at conferences in the US, Japan and New Zealand.

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