1960’s Pirate Radio – Was It Legal?

It’s well known that successive UK governments of the 1960’s were unable to control the offshore “pirate” radio stations until the passing of the Marine Broadcasting (Offences) Act in 1967.

What is less well known today is that it was actually illegal for anyone in the UK to listen to the pirate stations because, since the stations were unauthorised/unlicensed, listeners were contravening the UK’s 1949 Wireless Telegraphy Act.

The absurdity of prosecuting millions of UK residents for listening to music provided by Radio Caroline, Radio London, 390, 270, Scotland and several other offshore radio stations was not lost on the stations themselves and many will remember promotions they broadcast, such as this one in which a magistrate is sentencing a listener to have to listen to the BBC Light Programme for the rest of their life!

This promo also reflects on the policy of Harold Wilson’s Labour government and his Postmaster General, Edward Short, who were dogmatically set against any end to the existing radio monopoly and thus alienated a generation of young people. The script of the promotion went like this:

Magistrate: You have been found guilty of listening to an offshore commercial station. This is your 59th offence, therefore your punishment must be severe. I sentence you to listen to the BBC Light…
Defendant: Oh No!…
Magistrate: For the rest of your life!…
Defendant: Anything but that!…
Magistrate: Order, Order! – Any more of this contempt of court and it will be the Home Service!…
Defendant: (gulps)
Magistrate: That’s better!

Although the August 1967 Marine Broadcasting (Offences) Act caused all the offshore radio stations (except Radio Caroline) to cease broadcasting, it is also worth noting that this legislation, whilst criminalising anyone in the UK who advertised or supplied the offshore pirates, did not in fact make the stations themselves illegal. This point was taken up by a defiant Johnnie Walker in his words over Radio Caroline South at midnight on 14th August 1967, when the new law became effective:

“Radio Caroline would like to extend its thanks to Mr Harold Wilson and his Labour government for, at last, after over 3-1/2 years of broadcasting, recognizing this station’s legality, its right to be here, its right to be broadcasting to Great Britain and the continent, its right to give the music and service to the peoples of Europe which we have been doing since Easter Sunday 1964.
And we, in turn, recognise your right as our listener to have freedom of choice in your radio entertainment and, of course, that Radio Caroline belongs to you. It is your radio station even though it costs you nothing…”