HC Deb 22 June 1966 vol 730 cc858-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fitch.]

5.0 a.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

I rise to draw attention to the Government's attitude to pirate radio and television. I think that the adjournment of the House has never been more welcome. As I stand here we see dawn coming in through the windows. I hope that this debate may be seen, looking at it in retrospect, as heralding the dawn of a new attitude by the Government to this whole question.

There has been a tendency perhaps to dismiss pirate radio as a matter of no great importance and no great significance, as something which is a passing episode, but the extraordinary and tragic events of the past 24 hours have perhaps impressed everyone, the Opposition as well as the Government, that piracy is piracy in whatever aspect it occurs. We have seen the hi-jacking of a pirate station, Radio City, and the taking over of that illegally occupied tower by another group equally illegally occupying it. We have seen this culminate in the shooting to death of the chief of one of the pirate ships and the captain of another accused of murder.

We might have been more prepared for this had we considered that piracy is an aspect of anarchy. When the Government condone anarchy, as in effect they have been doing in the last two years, the gangsters soon take over. We might have been warned of this as this is not the first time that murder has taken place as a result of radio piracy. There was a murder on a Dutch ship some time ago. This is not something to be regarded as unimportant and a sort of pleasantry.

When the circumstances of the financing and management of Radio Caroline and of Radio City are investigated, we shall find that some respectable newspapers, notably the Financial Times, have been weaving a romantic web around some operations which will not look too well when the light of examination is brought to bear upon them.

The Government presented us more than a year ago with a document in which they set out the decisions of the European Agreement For The Prevention of Broadcasts Transmitted From Stations Outside National Territories. Article 2 of that Agreement said: Each contracting party undertakes to take appropriate steps to make punishable as offences, in accordance with its domestic law, the establishment or operation of broadcasting stations referred to in Article 1, as well as acts of collaboration knowingly performed. 2. The following shall, in relation to broadcasting stations referred to in Article 1, be acts of collaboration:

  1. (a) the provision, maintenance or repairing of equipment;
  2. (b) the provision of supplies;
  3. (c) the provision of transport for, or the transporting of, persons equipment or supplies;
  4. (d) the ordering or production of material of any kind, including advertisements, to be broadcast;
  5. (e) the provision of services concerning advertising for the benefit of the stations."
The Government have announced their intention to implement this agreement and to make these things illegal. It is extraordinary that, since that announcement, organisations which are normally regarded as respectable business organisations should continue to support these pirate stations although in full knowledge that the Government were to introduce legislation to make them illegal. One would have thought that it would have been proper for these business organisations to have ceased to support these pirate radios by discontinuing advertisements. That they refused to do so reflects discredit on them. Other countries have found it possible to get rid of pirate radios, but the United Kingdom is being regarded as a sort of refuge for buccaneers who have been rejected by more resolute Governments in Holland, Scandinavia and elsewhere and who have found shelter in and around our shores.

If we can, by international agreement, stop tankers reaching a port in Africa surely we can, with equal international agreement, prevent ships nearer our own shores breaking the European agreement to keep the air free from piracy.

The Postmaster-General has told us of the possible dire consequences of the usurpation of wavelengths, but the Government continue to find excuses for doing nothing to stop that which my right hon. Friend condemns.

When the pirates get into difficulty all available services are deployed to enable them to get back to their stations to continue their piracy. I understand that in the recent fracas on Radio City one group of pirates actually appealed to Scotland Yard to help them to resist the infiltration or attacks of the other group of pirates. According to last night's Evening Standard senior Scotland Yard officials are considering whether they should go to the aid of one side to help them resist the hijacking of the other. The only thing that Scotland Yard should be considering, but what they have not considered, is how to help the Government to eject the pirates. They should not be intervening in what is an internal competition in illegality.

Many of these pirates are not even on ships. The towers from which they operate have been brought inside territorial waters. They have no licences, and last December the Postmaster-General decided that the time had come to act. In February the Ministry of Defence said that it was too dangerous for the Armed Forces. Perhaps the police could help, but my right hon. Friend said no, the magistrates did not have proper jurisdiction. I am advised that this is not so. They have jurisdiction under the Wireless Telegraphy Act and under the Magistrates' Courts Act of 1952. I am advised on good authority that the arguments advanced to this effect by Sir Alan Herbert are legally valid. Why is it that the Government have not decided to act? Why is it too dangerous for the Navy or even marines to do here what the policeman regards as part of his job—going in and arresting law breakers?

Why did the Chancellor of the Exchequer refuse to consider my own proposal that the cost of advertising on pirate radio should be disallowed as an expense for tax purposes, thus starving the pirates out if they are too dangerous to arrest? The consequence of that refusal is that the advertising organisations have now recognised the pirates, and the audience must be substantial, for they are paying up to £80 for a 30-second spot.

Here, perhaps, lies the secret of the Government's inaction. A lot of people are listening to the pirates, and the B.B.C. has lost its grip on the audience for popular music on sound radio. Perhaps the Government do not really know what to do about it.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will comment on the following proposals which I put forward as a possible solution to the problem. The Government should set up a new public authority, called, perhaps, the Television and Radio Authority. It would be quite separate from the existing authorities, which would continue as at present. The new authority would run the fourth television channel, which is needed if the University of the Air is to get off the ground in a big way, and it might also transmit some pay-television programmes, which have had a surprising success in their first test.

The new authority's immediate task would be to set up a national radio network in competition with the B.B.C. It would replace the pirates, who should be given immediate notice to quit and evicted. The new service would aim to be popular. It would, in the first instance, transmit the same sort of programmes as the pirates are transmitting. It would do that, perhaps, on a medium wavelength which, if necessary, could be borrowed from the B.B.C, though it might be found by international agreement. It would transmit simultaneously on v.h.f., and on these wavelengths would act as a national feeder station for local radio stations which would be set up locally under local boards of directors, with local authority participation.

The new authority would be capitalised by public finance, but it would be allowed to accept advertising. The local stations would be allowed to accept local advertising. It would, as it were, be a mixed economy of the air.

By this means, several problems would be solved. First, we should be able to rid ourselves of the pirates, without depriving the audience of their "mush". Second, we should break the sound monopoly of the B.B.C. The very existence of the pirates is proof that this needs to be done. Third, we should have established a parent for local radio. Local radio needs a national parent, but it should not be the B.B.C. The flavour of the B.B.C, in my judgment, is good; I enjoy it myself; but many people do not, and they should not be deprived of choice. If anyone says that the three B.B.C. sound programmes provide all the choice that one could want, I point to the success of the pirates. Clearly, the B.B.C. is not catering for that huge audience. I do not believe that the Corporation should be forced to cater for them, if it does not want to, and neither do I believe that it should be forced to accept advertising.

Here, I suggest, is the answer: a new authority, publicly capitalised, publicly owned, but accepting advertising revenue, providing a national service and source of a local service which would provide means of stimulating interest in local activities, facilities, music, sport and so on.

I recognise that there are difficulties. One of them is the absolute need to reach agreement with the performers' and writers' unions. In my opinion—I speak here entirely for myself—this would not be impossible if the new authority were prepared to transmit a proportion of live or specially recorded material and to pay for all broadcasts on a royalty basis so that every time a commercial gramophone record was broadcast, the performer or, perhaps, his union or organisation on his behalf received a payment.

These are the lines along which, I suggest, the problem should be tackled. It should be tackled now, and not allowed to drift. The more it is allowed to drift, the more difficult it will be to solve and the less credit the Government will deserve or get for tackling it. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to tell us that he believes that the Government have been perhaps encouraged or shocked by the events of the last 24 hours and jerked into action which only if it is determined and quick action, will be forgiven for being belated.

5.15 a.m.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

It is customary for a Minister to express his gratitude to any hon. Member who raises a subject on the Adjournment, but on this occation I do it with particular warmth because of the importance of the subject my hon. Friend has raised and the complexity of the issues involved, and because of the obvious thought that has gone into his speech.

The question of pirate radio broadcasting is one that concerns everybody because it involves the whole character of our radio services and the extent to which it is necessary that they should be regulated to meet both our international requirements and our national needs.

Pirate ships began about two and a quarter years ago. Most of them were operating outside our territorial limits, and hence outside our domestic jurisdiction, and were able to seize wavelengths which did not belong to this country, play records recorded by and belonging to others and thus attract an audience which began to interest the advertisers. They could do all this with impunity since no Government had any authority to stop them.

May I make it clear from the outset that the objection to the pirate ships does not stem from the content of the programmes. Most of them provide what has sometimes been described as audible wallpaper, a continuous series of musical items that are understandably attractive to any general audience. They provide an apparently free service of entertainment that would otherwise involve buying one's own gramophone records to play in one's own home or car or on a picnic. Of course they are popular.

Why then have all European Governments, together with the last Government and this Government, come out so strongly against them? It certainly was not due to any puritanical prejudice against light music or to a bureaucratic hatred of enjoyment. It was for much more practical reasons which I should like to spell out, because this is the first debate on the pirates since the 1964 General Election.

First, by using high-power transmitters on wavelengths that have not been allocated by international agreement, the pirate ships are interfering with the reception of national stations within Europe, and this interference is going on still.

Many European countries have protested to Britain about our pirates. Zagreb Radio recently had to broadcast an apology to its own listeners for the interference caused by Radio London, which they courteously explained was not an official British station. The Czechs, the French, the Swedes and more recently the Italians have complained to us about them. Quite frankly I should do exactly the same were I in their position and the reception of B.B.C. programmes was being ruined by some unauthorised foreign station.

I do not believe that those who listen to the pirates in Britain have any idea that they are getting their pleasure at the expense of others, and if they did know it I am sure that most of them would support and will support the action we are going to take.

The second reason is similarly an important one—namely the safety of our ships at sea. Some of these pirates operating near to the ship-to-shore safety frequencies occasionally spill over into them and interrupt this vital emergency service. There is a continual risk that some disaster at sea may not be reported quickly enough because emergency messages have been drowned or delayed by pirate stations. If such a tragedy were to occur—which is a personal nightmare of mine—the public would rightly rise in their wrath and demand to know why the pirates had been allowed to continue.

The third reason why the pirates cannot go on is that they are taking advantage of their extra-territorial position to steal the work of others, composers and musicians, and make money out of them without payment. Some ships have offered some payment, but an ex-gratia grant from a man who has stolen your property is not a very satisfactory basis on which to proceed.

Finally we have to ask ourselves— particularly today—whether unregulated broadcasting could possibly be allowed by any country or by the world as a whole. Radio waves know no frontier, and a complete free-for-all would reduce us all to jungle conditions in which the enjoyment of broadcasting would be continually threatened by more powerful transmitters from other nations that were appropriating our own wavelengths.

The word "pirate" is now beginning to lose some of its artificial glamour, and reverting in every sense to its real meaning. This is why the Conservative Government in 1964 and our own Government since have consistently accepted the necessity for ending pirate broadcasting. The European Convention signed last year was a solemn international undertaking by us and others to legislate for this purpose. Some countries have already done so. Sweden passed a very strong Act in April and has finally settled its own pirates. What happened? One of its pirate ships moved to Britain, and the Swedes, who have been through this experience of legislating, are now experiencing interference from ships lying off our own shores.

Our Bill to deal with the pirates is ready. It will be introduced. I am not the first Minister in a British Government to be waiting for Parliamentary time to get his legislation on the Statute Book. The Bill will come forward when the time table permits. That is the position. It is easy, and, indeed, natural, for the cynics to say—I am not suggesting that my hon. Friend said it, but he hinted at it—"The Government have got cold feet and they dare not touch these stations because they are so popular." I assure my hon. Friend that my feet are very warm. The Bill will come forward, and I believe that, in the light of the growing experience that we have of the meaning of these ships, it will be welcomed by the House and passed into law.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Does my right hon. Friend think that the events of the last 24 or 48 hours will perhaps enable the Government to give the matter a little higher priority than it has apparently had up to the moment?

Mr. Benn

We have to be very careful in discussion about the events of the last 24 hours, because some of them spill into matters which may come before the courts. I can only say that every fresh example of the meaning of unregulated broadcasting strengthens my feeling about it—not that it needed strengthening at the outset, I confess.

I turn to another point raised by my hon. Friend, the question of prosecution. It is true that at one stage it looked as if some of the pirate stations might be within our jurisdiction and could be dealt with in the courts. But I am now advised that there is some doubt about jurisdiction. This is a very complex matter, and I am not sure whether it can be overcome. If it can, action will be taken. In any case, prosecution under existing powers would deal with only some of the pirates and would not obviate the need for legislation in respect of the ships now outside our territorial waters.

I turn to a question to which my hon. Friend addressed himself very fully, and that is the question quite properly asked whenever the pirates are discussed: "If you are getting rid of the pirates, what is the alternative?". This is a problem to which, inevitably, I have given a very great deal of attention over the past 12 or 18 months. It is not at all an easy one, for in one sense there can be no substitute for the pirates. For example, the wavelengths which the pirates use are not available to us. They are denied to us by the same international agreement that the pirates are now ignoring. Therefore, anyone who thinks that if the wavelengths which they are using were used under different auspices within the United Kingdom we should have solved the problem is misleading himself. The only wavelengths that are effectively available to us in any quantity are the v.h.f. wavelengths. But the difficulty about them is that only a minority of the public have v.h.f. sets, and the majority of the people who listen to the pirates, particularly the transistor users, have not got v.h.f., or at any rate have not got it now. Secondly, it would not be sensible—I am not saying that my hon. Friend suggested it—to requisition v.h.f. transmitters that might be used for genuine local broadcasting and hand them over to non-stop music stations which are anything but local in the sort of programmes which they broadcast.

The question arises: could the B.B.C. run an alternative? I have often had to remind the House that I do not control the B.B.C. Perhaps I should say it again. The pirate stations have moved into an area which the B.B.C. has not thought it right—it has been unwilling or unable, or both—to develop. The pirate audiences are drawn from among the many millions of people who want to be able to find on the dial of their radio a station that will invariably give them light music. They also want what has come to be called "companionship radio"—that is the informality of the disc-jockey who presents the programmes.

The certainty of light music and informality of presentation have never been a part of the B.B.C. programme policy. The B.B.C. has always worked on entirely different lines. It has worked on the principle that there were three kinds of listeners, the Third Programme listener, the Home Service listener and the Light Programme listener. To each it feeds a balanced diet of music, news and spoken word, mixed in the proportion thought right for that particular type of listener.

It is not for me to comment on whether B.B.C. policy is right or wrong, but it is a fact that this conception of radio programming does not meet the desires of those who want continuous music, or continuous spoken word, predictably to be found at a certain spot on the dial.

When I went to Sweden recently, and I went there partly to discuss the whole question of broadcasting policy on pirates, I was told about a re-programming set in hand by the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, which is introducing a 24-hour melody network to replace one of its existing programmes, and rescheduling drama, spoken word, education and serious music on the other two. Thus, in Sweden they have plans to provide a choice between different types of programmes on their three channels instead of a choice of three different balanced diets, as has been done hitherto.

One cannot look to the B.B.C, with its present programme policy, to offer what could be strictly called an alternative to the pirates. It has introduced more light music on the Light Programme than in the past, but it would face two problems if it intended to go further, the first being the agreement on needle-time with the Musicians' Union, which is designed to protect the livelihood of musicians, and restrict the use of records. I do not know whether this problem is as difficult now as it was before. The Musicians' Union is badly threatened by the pirate stations. In the past the Union interpreted its job as involving some restriction on the use of records. It might be that it would be prepared to look again at this agreement to see whether it could be liberalised.

The other problem that the B.B.C. would face if it went for the 24-hour light music programme would be the problem of money, for, unlike the pirates, who make money out of broadcasting light music, the B.B.C. has repeatedly reaffirmed its belief in the licence fee method as the sole method of financing its services. That means that, even if it could get the agreement of the Musicians' Union to the use of more music, it would still have to find more money out of the licence fee to pay the musicians for the programmes put on.

These are some of the problems which have confronted me in trying to find an alternative to the sort of programmes provided by the pirates. I can see nothing but good coming out of the widest possible public discussion of this matter. Meanwhile, I am having discussions with the B.B.C. about this subject.

I was naturally interested to hear my hon. Friend's solution, which he appeared to have worked out with great care. Whether it is desirable or practicable, I cannot now say, but it is a great help to feel that others are thinking about this and are aware, as my hon. Friend is, of the nature of the problem.

I will conclude by summarising what I have said. First, pirate radio stations are a form of international anarchy that no Government could ignore. They make their money by taking the work of others, without permission or payment; they broadcast in such a way as to spoil the enjoyment of others and to threaten essential radio services. Legislation to deal with them is ready, and it will be brought in as quickly as possible. We are looking hard to see whether an alternative programme within the limits of international law is possible. This search has revealed formidable difficulties. I do not say that they are insuperable. All I can say is that a great deal of time and effort is going into the search, and I very much hope that we can see our way through to a solution.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Five o'clock a.m.