Illegal Radio Broadcasts
James Brokenshire (Shadow Minister, Home Affairs; Hornchurch, Conservative)
Three years ago, I first highlighted the dangers posed by illegal radio stations. The purpose of tonight's debate is to raise this issue in the House again and to highlight that, sadly, very little progress has been made in the last three years to establish a co-ordinated strategy to deal with illegal broadcasters; to increase the opportunities for community radio stations to satisfy unmet need in their neighbourhoods; and to address the serious problems caused by some illegal broadcasters whose activities show a wanton disregard for the well-being of others.
I use the terms "illegal radio stations" or "unlawful broadcasts", rather than "pirate stations", because of the nostalgic impression that the latter phrase implies. The recent Richard Curtis film, "The Boat that Rocked", brings to mind this buccaneering approach, with new and innovative unregulated stations challenging previous orthodoxies on music and the whole approach to broadcasting—the results of which form part of the style and sound of the commercial and BBC radio stations that we hear today.
In many ways, that historic view of what pirate or illegal radio stations were about is part of the issue. It implies that these stations were simply about breaking new boundaries, breaking the mould of popular culture and staying one step ahead of the regulators, who were out to stifle choice and new ways of doing things. In no way do I want to affect the vibrancy of radio as a medium or to stop the ability of communities to establish stations to meet the needs and interests of new listeners. I am a real enthusiast for radio and the power of the medium. Indeed, the primary reason for initiating this debate was the problems that my own community radio station in Havering, Link FM 102.2, has been suffering.
The reality of most of today's illegal radio stations, as contrasted with the pioneering pirates of the 1960s, could not be starker. According to Ofcom, the vast majority of these stations exist simply as illegal businesses that promote events at nightclubs and make significant sums of cash from advertising and from exploiting young MCs or DJs conned into paying out cash to take the mic and potentially put at risk their ability thereafter to work in the industry to which they aspire.
Some illegal stations have become linked to forms of serious criminal behaviour, with some illegal broadcasters being convicted for offences such as money laundering, drugs supply and firearms offences. The illegal stations are often operated with disregard for the health and safety of others, and cause significant disruption and damage to legitimate businesses that have paid significant sums of money to the Government in licence fees for radio frequencies that are in part unusable.
Illegal broadcasting by its very nature is entirely unregulated. It feels no prohibition on playing music that might glamorise gang violence or drug culture. It is accountable to no one for what it broadcasts. It abides by no programming codes on taste or decency and it operates without any regard for the consequences of what may be said on air. Pirate radio was thought to have triggered the Lozells riots in October 2005 by inciting racial tensions in Birmingham by spreading false rumours that a black woman had been raped by Asian men. But there are many other ways in which illegal broadcasting can cause harm. Signals from illegal broadcasters can interfere with other radio systems, and when this happens to emergency and critical services it is particularly serious.
In the six months from April to September 2008, Ofcom field engineers investigated a total of 36 reports from emergency and critical services of interference that was directly attributable to illegal broadcasters. The large majority of those complaints were from the fire service and National Air Traffic Services. Some recent examples given to me by Ofcom include the following. On
The London fire brigade has told Ofcom that it suffers radio interference from illegal radio broadcasts on average once every two weeks. When this occurs, control room staff are unable to make contact with crews en route to an emergency, which means that the effective co-ordination of such operations is diminished. When its control centre suffers from such interference and is unable to receive messages from crews at one site only, it has the ability to inhibit receivers at that site. That is a short-term measure and reduces overall coverage across London.
Significant damage to public property can be caused by illegal broadcasters when installing and maintaining their apparatus. Some local authorities are reported to be paying more than £250,000 a year on repairing damage and securing roof spaces, but such activities also have a human side. Concerned residents and officials who challenge the activities of illegal broadcasters—often the caretakers and others responsible for the safety and maintenance of estates—are threatened with physical violence or suffer intimidation.
In one example provided by Ofcom from last year, two of its officials were confronted by two men after they disconnected the transmitter of an illegal broadcast station in Haringey and were threatened with a knife. Some illegal broadcasters locate their equipment in private dwellings, taking advantage of vulnerable people or using coercion. Damage may be caused to locked roof access doors, creating further risk of harm with the possibility of children being able to access dangerous environments—not to mention the booby-trapping of equipment.
An illegal broadcaster will identify a slot in the FM broadcasting band. It will then locate its transmitter on high ground, usually on the roof of a local authority building, typically a residential tower block. The transmitters are crude in construction and are not electronically safe. To feed the transmitter, the illegal broadcaster will tap into the building's power supply, often by diverting electricity from the lift motor room with consequential safety issues. The equipment has also been known to be secured with live mains electricity applied to roof access doors and sharp objects such as razor blades, syringe needles and broken glass secured to roof access ladders.
There is a misconception that the people behind illegal radio stations are just enthusiasts with an interest in music and broadcasting. Some claim that they break the law because they want to serve a community need. There are a minority for whom that might be true, but the truth is that the majority of illegal broadcasters are motivated by money. Set-up costs are minimal. A transmitter costs around £350 and a good-quality studio can be assembled for £3,000. Revenue comes from two sources. Many DJs pay to broadcast on illegal radio stations in an attempt to gain public exposure. Predominantly young people, most DJs are exploited by station managers who will charge them up to £20 per hour for the chance to appear on air. Illegal radio stations also receive income from selling advertising, often publicising events at nightclubs.
The rewards can be significant. Some of these well-organised criminal businesses are generating as much as £250,000 in cash a year, going into the unlawful, untaxed economy. That puts into context why people in the radio industry regard current court fines following convictions for unlawful radio broadcast offences as utterly derisory. Last year these fines averaged just £486, with offences being treated like TV licensing offences.
Ofcom estimates that there are around 150 illegal broadcasters in the UK, with more than 60 per cent. operating in London. At any one time it is believed that up to 90 illegal broadcasters are transmitting in London. I want to pay tribute to Ofcom for the work it does in taking enforcement action against the illegal broadcasters. Last year, Ofcom conducted 525 separate operations. Ofcom staff have developed close working relationships with specialised areas of the police service, such as elements of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the regional asset recovery teams and the National Policing Improvement Agency.
Ofcom staff work with affected local authorities and housing associations as well as the mobile phone operators whose masts are sometimes targeted as a location for main transmitters of the illegal broadcasters. It is right that there should be a co-ordinated partnership approach given the need for preventive measures, the serious crime issues, the health and safety implications, the cost for local government and other governmental agencies and the fact that enforcement alone will not provide a longer-term solution to the menace of the illegal broadcasters.
That was why I asked various parliamentary questions to a number of Departments to establish how well the Government were responding to the issues. Despite what Ofcom has reported on the links to serious criminality, the Home Office told me that it was
"unaware of a linkage between illegal radio broadcasting and serious organised criminality."—[ Hansard, 19 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 1234W.]
"We have not made any assessment of the health and safety risk to social housing tenants caused by equipment installed for the purposes of illegal radio broadcasts."—[ Hansard, 4 November 2008; Vol. 482, c. 341W.]
Despite the potential disruption of air traffic control signals guiding airliners over our heads, the Department of Transport was content to respond:
"NATS, the leading air navigation services provider, is a private company and questions concerning the extent of disruption to its air traffic control services should be directed to the company's chief executive."—[ Hansard, 11 November 2008; Vol. 482, c. 955W.]
Those responses do not inspire confidence that a longer-term, sustained and joined-up approach to the problems posed by the illegal stations will be created.
Will the Minister commit to work with other Departments to highlight the risks associated with illegal radio broadcasts? Will he discuss with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport the potential for exploring whether there are any other ways of using the existing FM spectrum more effectively to address unmet community needs, and whether the existing regulatory regime, which is based on promises of performance, remains fit for purpose in promoting choice and diversity in broadcast output?
Will the Minister also confirm with DCMS the effect of illegal broadcasts on the fledgling community radio sector? It is somewhat ironic that community stations, which have greater flexibility in their programming output and greater scope to meet a broader range of interests—in many ways they are intended to meet the desires for aspiring radio talent—should be the worst affected by the impact of the illegal stations. I know that my community station, Link FM, has struggled to attract advertising when its broadcasts over its small area have been disrupted and often blocked out by a pirate squatting on an adjacent frequency.
Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice the possibility for community punishments or other sanctions being made available for breaches of the Wireless Telegraphy Acts, instead of relying on fines that do not appear to offer any meaningful sanctions? I have been encouraged by Ofcom's work with law enforcement on using proceeds of crime recovery powers. Will the Minister ask his officials to explore whether any similar powers or sanctions might be utilised, such as antisocial behaviour orders and other injunctive relief?
I appreciate that the Minister has a lot of other pressing items and priorities on his desk, but this issue is causing harm, exploiting the vulnerable and potentially putting people at risk. I hope that it will not take another three years until a more co-ordinated, meaningful and effective approach is brought to bear on a problem that is simply not going away.