Sea watch

Marine Broadcasting Offences Act

The Marine, Etc., Broadcasting (Offences) Act 1967 c.41, shortened to Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, became law in the United Kingdom after 12 midnight on Monday, August 14, 1967. Its express purpose was to extend the domestic powers of the British Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949 (which it incorporated by reference), beyond the territorial land mass and territorial waters of the UK to cover airspace and bodies of water.

At the time that the Bill for a proposed new law was first introduced in Parliament in 1966, there were a number of radio stations and proposals for television stations, that were operating outside of British licensing jurisdiction with signals intentionally aimed at British listeners and viewers. Although these extraterritorial stations were marine based in 1966, press reports of similar stations broadcasting from aircraft were in circulation. The Act included the Channel Islands and extended to cover the Isle of Man. As a result of this Act, the offshore stations which had been euphemistically called pirate radio stations prior to the Act then became criminal enterprises if they were operated or assisted in any way by persons who were subject to UK law. At first it was thought by the station operators that if they were staffed, supplied and funded by non-British citizens that they could continue transmissions, but this interpretation proved to be impractical.

Origins of the Act

In 1966, broadcasting in the UK was controlled under the power vested in the British General Post Office which had granted exclusive radio broadcasting licences to the British Broadcasting Corporation and television licences to both the BBC and sixteen Independent Television companies following the Television Act 1954.

The power of the GPO was derived from a series of interlocking legislative acts that began with the Sovereign through Parliament to declare the right to control all communications within the Realm. These powers flowed from handwritten letters delivered by the Post Office, to newspapers, books and their printing presses, the encoding of messages on lines used for the supply of electricity; the electric telegraph, the electric telephone (which was originally deemed to be a variety of electronic Post Office); the electric wireless telegraph and the electric wireless telephone which became known as "telephony" and later as wireless broadcasting (a term that had been out of fashion for years until the advent of the cell phone.) Some of these powers have been relaxed and some of them have been reinforced. An example of relaxation includes the licensing of printing presses as a means of censorship and the reinforcement includes the encoding of messages over the electric power grid following the development of cable television and Internet services via this method of distribution.

In the 1920s the licensing authority of the GPO had been circumvented by the broadcasting of English language programmes directed at the British Isles from transmitters located in several countries within relative proximity to British listeners. The advent of World War II essentially terminated these broadcasts except those of Radio Luxembourg which later resumed commercial transmission.

Broadcasting pressure groups

In the 1950s a political pressure group campaigned successflly with the help of Winston Churchill to pass the Television Act 1954 that broke the BBC television monopoly by the creation of the commercial ITV. Some of the key members of this pressure group wanted to extend commercial competition to radio broadcasting, but they were constantly thwarted by a succession of governments.

By the 1960s several companies had been formed in the United Kingdom in the hope that radio broadcasting licenses would soon be issued. At the same time radio monopolies in other adjoining nations had been broken by the establishment of transmitters based outside of national jurisdictions on ships anchored in international waters. The first attempt to broadcast by offshore radio to Britain was made by CNBC, an English language station operating from the same ship as Radio Veronica broadcasting in the Dutch language to the Netherlands. CNBC was not successful and it ended transmissions, but soon press reports followed that a venture called GBLN, The Voice of Slough would be commence transmissions from a ship with sponsored programming already booked and advertised by Herbert W. Armstrong. GBLN was followed by reports that a station called GBOK was attempting to get on the air from yet another ship, with both radio ships to be anchored off south-east England. Many of the people involved in these early ventures were known to each other.

At the same time some of the former commercial television pressure group members had not only registered broadcasting companies, but were working with members of the British Establishment to create well-funded offshore radio stations. The first of these ventures was Project Atlanta in 1963 which had ties to British political leaders, bankers, music industry and Gordon McLendon whose family roots were found in Atlanta, Texas and who had previously assisted Radio Nord to broadcast from a ship anchored in international waters off Sweden. When that radio vessel was legislated off the air by a new Swedish law it became available for use by British broadcasting entrepreneurs. Before Radio Atlanta got on the air the project had become known to other members of the British establishment who in March 1964 were successful in launching their own offshore station called Radio Caroline.

The Texas broadcasting connections to British offshore stations led to Don Pierson of Eastland, Texas in successfully promoting three American radio format stations operating from off the British coastline with considerable transmitting power: Wonderful Radio London or "Big L", Swinging Radio England and Britain Radio. By 1966 many other offshore broadcasting stations had either come on the air transmitting to Scotland, northern and southern England or were in the process of doing so. Press reports included rumours of offshore television stations and the brief success of the Dutch REM Island operation called Radio and TV Noordzee only heightened the fear of the authorities that defacto unregulated broadcasting was becoming so entrenched due to its popularity, that it would not be possible to stop it.

Existing laws governing the offshore stations

Although these stations maintained their sales and management offices on land and within the scope of existing British laws, their transmitters and on air studios were not under British law. In many instances the ownership of the radio ships was vested in companies registered in countries other than the United Kingdom and therefore subject to the regulations of the laws of those countries.

Claims of piracy

During Parliamentary debates which often spilled over into the press, several reasons were stated as to why the operations of British broadcasting by stations unlicensed by Britain should be stopped. In order to promote their political agenda, proponents of legislation referred to the offshore stations as "pirate radio stations". Because the word "piracy" means theft of property it was necessary to castigate the stations as thieves. These allegations of theft included the misappropriation of former World War II military installations; wavelengths allocated to other broadcasters by International Treaty and the unauthorised playing of recorded music. On top of this other charges were added to imply that the offshore radio vessels were a danger to shipping on the high seas and their spurious signals could interfere with aircraft and land-based emergency communications by police, fire and ambulance services. In effect, virtually none of these allegations could be substantiated.

Timing of legislation

In 1966 a series of events took place which led to the sensational hijacking of the offshore station Radio City which was based at a disused offshore World-War-Two defence-fort. In turn this event led to a key political promoter of Project Atlanta being confronted in his home by the owner of Radio City and then shooting him which resulted in that person's death. While charges of murder were brought the case ended in a ruling of not guilty in that it had been an act of self-defence. But these developments and the strengthened political position of the ruling Labour government of Harold Wilson, were enough to see the successful introduction and passage of the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act which became law on August 15, 1967.

Results of the legislation

The offshore broadcasting stations were essentially composed of four groups. These included:

  1. Local operators of small stations such as Radio Essex later renamed BBMS and Radio City and Radio 390 who conducted their businesses with limited budgets primarily from disused World War II forts situated on offshore sandbars. The UK managed to silence these stations by redrawing the coastline according to new legislation and thus bringing the sandbars within UK territorial waters where the stations were prosecuted under the existing powers of the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949.
  2. Regional operators of radio ship stations such as Radio 270 and Radio Scotland who lacked the resources to relocate their businesses to other countries and staff their operations with non-British personnel who could advertise products and services available in Britain but made and sponsored from another country.
  3. The ship based stations of Wonderful Radio London and Swinging Radio England and Britain Radio. While Wonderful Radio London had made money, the other stations had lost money due to problems with transmission equipment and mismanagement by their London sales representatives, and so they closed ahead of the law in order to save further expense. Wonderful Radio London continued broadcasting and making money until its last transmission on the eve of the new law coming into effect, but it was decided that the new law was so thoroughly written that it would be almost impossible to make money under such draconian conditions, and so the station closed down.
  4. The Radio Caroline Network serving the UK from two ships. This network at first announced that it would continue by relocating its operations to Holland and gaining advertising from an office in New York City. The reality of this decision was felt in early 1968 when two tug boats representing the supply company simply towed the vessels aways to satisfy unpaid debts.

Continuing challenges to legislation

Although challenges began anew with the arrival of Radio Northsea International in 1970, the Labour and Conservative British governments added to the strength of the law by jamming this station until it moved away from the British coastline.

In 1983 Radio Caroline returned to a point off the British shore with a new ship and huge antenna. It was soon joined by Laser 558 aboard another vessel, and while the latter station quickly gained a huge audience, the net effect of the legislation which was continuously tweaked to tighten the noose, plus a sea watch embargo monitoring supplies going out to the Laser 558 vessel, eventually drove its operators into insolvency.

While Radio Caroline managed to return to the airwaves and survive through the 1970s using one vessel that eventually sank in 1980, and then to return yet again with a new ship in 1983, it was primarily an operation conducted with volunteer help. A storm eventually toppled its huge and impressive tower in 1987 and the sea embargo against Laser 558 created more difficulties for Radio Caroline which had limped back on the air with a new antenna system. The Dutch and British governments then raided the Radio Caroline ship and destroyed and removed much of its equipment, but again it limped back on to the air.

The apparent conclusion of unlicensed British offshore radio

The end of the offshore Radio Caroline came when the Broadcasting Act 1990, an even more drastic Act of legislation which built upon all similar and related legislation, together with a huge storm that caused its staff to evacutate and temporarily abandon the ship, eventually caused the station to come ashore in 1991 where an association of enthusiasts continues to build a broadcasting business using the new licensing system that has become available to British broadcasters.

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