MP calls for tough action against pirate radio stations

June 2, 2009 at 12:37 pm 2 comments

By Anna Rutter

The majority of illegal broadcasters are motivated by money rather than the pushing of new cultural boundaries or community needs, Conservative MP James Brokenshire has argued today.

Taking part in an adjournment debate on pirate radio, Mr Brokenshire asserted that the historic view of illegal radio stations hid the reality of the majority of pirate stations, which existed as illegal businesses seeking to make cash from advertising or exploiting young MCs or DJs.

Furthermore, some stations had been linked to serious criminal behaviour, such as money laundering and firearms offences. Such stations were operated with disregard for the health and safety of others and could cause disruption to legitimate businesses that had paid large sums of money to Government in license fees, he said.

Signals from pirate stations could also interfere with other radio systems, such as emergency and critical services which were particularly serious. Mr Brokenshire told the House that Ofcom had received a serious of complaints from the National Air Traffic Services where interference affecting aircraft using Heathrow airport had been traced to illegal broadcasters operating around London. In addition, London Fire Brigade suffered from interference from pirate stations once every two weeks.

Moving on, he explained that significant damage to public property could also be caused by illegal broadcasters when installing and maintaining their equipment, with concerned residents who challenge the activities of pirate stations threatened with physical violence.

The transmitters used for illegal broadcasting were often crude in construction and were not electrically safe, and had been known to be secured with sharp objects such as razor blades and syringe needles.

Turning to the misperception that the people behind pirate stations were just enthusiast with an interest in music and broadcasting, Mr Brokenshire argued that the majority of illegal broadcasters were motivated by money who sought to exploit young DJs. He noted that some stations were generating as much as £250,000 in cash a year, which went straight into the unlawful, untaxed economy.

He called upon Employment Minister, Pat McFadden to highlight the risks associated with illegal radio broadcasters and to discuss with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport ways of using the existing FM spectrum to address unmet community needs. He also asked the Minister to comment on the effect of illegal broadcasters on the community radio sector, and to discuss with the Ministry of Justice the possibility for community punishments being made available for breaches of the Wireless Telegraphy Acts.

Responding, Mr McFadden acknowledged that the issues surrounding pirate radio were very different from those that existed in the 1960s, with links to serious crime and damaging effects on peoples’ quality of life.

He explained that the responsibility for stopping illegal broadcasting stations lied with Ofcom, who aimed to reduce interference by sending out a strong message that illegal broadcasters would suffer consequences. The watchdog also used a range of criteria to determine when to act, but when an issue could endanger lives, treated the issue as a matter for priority.

As for penalties, pirate broadcasters could receive up to two years in prison, he noted, or an unlimited fine. Furthermore, anyone convicted of an offence was barred from working for a legitimate station for five years. One of the problems of challenging illegal stations was getting to the person behind them, rather than the person operating the equipment, he added.

Concluding, Mr McFadden informed the House that Ofcom had obtained authority to access date about telecoms communications and to undertake surveillance. Such extra powers gave Ofcom a greater capacity to get to those who were operating the station at the time of the raid.
Pressing further on the matter of penalties, Mr Brokenshire asked whether the Minister would discuss with the Ministry of Justice the possibility of using community punishments so that there was perceived to be a meaningful sanction rather than a fine, which often went unpaid.

Ofcom had spent £1.5 million on enforcement during the previous year, Mr McFadden pointed out, and had undertaken 525 separate operations against illegal broadcasters resulting in 28 convictions. However, it was relatively cheap to set up illegal radio stations but tough for regulators to control the numbers of pirate stations.

He told the House that where there was a link to other illegal activity, significant sentences could be imposed, and that Ofcom had also developed close relationships with the Serious Organised Crime Agency and regional asset recovery teams.

Whilst pirate stations had previously had a role in nurturing talent and in ensuring that minority tastes were being catered for, stations were now much more harmful and as technology evolved there was less need for them than ever before. He noted that the Digital Britain report would look at extending access to legitimate people who wised to establish radio stations.

Finally, Mr McFadden recognised that people would continue to question the need for pirate stations in the future, which was why the Government would continue to take enforcement seriously.


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dan  |  June 2, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Ahh shame! So what …someone broadcasts explicit lyrics to their local block?! if you are offended you don’t tune it – in fact you are unlikely to know about the illegal stations unless you constantly browse your FM dial.

    The current penalty for illegal broadcasting (that is not having a piece of paper i.e. a license and not being subjected to certain rules – radio doesn’t have a watershed anyway) is higher than carrying a knife or gun, theft, violent attacks, arson, drink driving, other driving offences including most death by dangerous driving offences, a lot of paedophilia offences too and various other crimes.

    The issue in fact is… is a group of music lovers who don’t have the finance to go legit really a bigger criminal than the above? Government needs to via its cultural department finance these radio stations. This is a massive attack particularly on black people who, like a lot of white people etc. don’t like the commercial rubbish and in particular want to hear LOCAL music.

    Another reason not to ever vote Conservatives!

  • 2. Norman Grundy  |  October 10, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    I for one think that FM mico stations would be a good thing,allowing small power output stations to broadcast to say 1 mile radius of the studio site.
    Thus making it possible to cover a small village or local. This way local neibourhoods would have a point of contact and music and chat that would not normally be heard on the larger commercial stations.
    Of couse a fee and rules would be required but within reasonable limmits. say 2/3 hundred pounds a year, for a licence and as for the rules well that would have to be discussed with the powers that be.
    As to the power of the transmitter say 500milliwats to a watt would work fine in most instences.


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