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The real story of Radio Caroline

By Steve McGann

This article first appeared as a Charter88 publication in 1995


Why break a butterfly upon the wheel?" Lord Annan, speaking in the House of Lords at Report Stage on the Broadcasting Bill, 5th June 1990.


Government in Britain wields absolute power in a way unknown in other western democracies. Because we are subjects, not citizens, freedom does not belong to us. The freedoms that we have are given us by government - and what government gives, it can take away. So the law is defined by what we are permitted to do, rather than what it is our right to do. The difference is a crucial one. Because we have no power - no rights, no redress - as long as a government commands a Parliamentary majority, it has the right to do more or less as it pleases. It is licensed dictatorship.

But it is British. And for that, we celebrate it. It's an expression of our non- conformity as a nation. It's unique. It's our way of doing things.

We love being different! The imperial mile, right-hand-drive, the pinta on the doorstep - we do things our way. Though we like to know where we stand - to feel safe - we keep a special place in our hearts for those who are different. The 'lovable eccentric' has become a national icon - proof of a very British tolerance.

Yet the very individuality we cherish will always be in danger of running up against the logic of British power. Our subjecthood dictates that ultimately we must do what our rulers tell us. This is all well and good as long as government, like a good parent, acts in our best interests. But what if our parent seems more preoccupied with having the last word than doing the right thing?

Six years ago, Peter Moore's activities led him into direct conflict with Her Majesty's Government. The Essex police, the Royal Air Force and assorted government officials joined forces in an operation to put him out of action. New laws, and amendments to existing ones, made what he was doing illegal. Prison sentences could be imposed on people who helped him. Finally, a forced entry was made at his place of work to confiscate and destroy his equipment.

What on earth was Peter Moore doing? Was he a spy? A terrorist? A drug dealer? Was he plotting an invasion? Was he a dangerous subversive? An enemy of the people? A threat to national security?

Not quite.

Peter Moore was the manager of a radio station called Radio Caroline.

And the crime?

Caroline was broadcasting pop music without a licence.

Radio Caroline was a British institution. It operated on and off for over 25 years, broadcasting from small vessels anchored off the British coast. The first 'pirate' radio station, it first went on air in 1964, when British youth culture was finding a distinctive sound, and BBC radio was still stuck in the music of the fifties.

In the early 60s, Radio Luxembourg was the only station that played the new music, but it was tightly controlled by the big four record companies and therefore restricted. So Ronan O'Rahilly, who managed the singer Georgie Fame, decided to do something about it. He bought a Danish passenger vessel, the Fredericia, and fitted it out with a radio transmitter. Ronan re-named it Caroline, after the late President Kennedy's daughter. Caroline put to sea on 27th March 1964, and began broadcasting a day later. She was the first independent radio station, the start of a revolution in British broadcasting - and the beginning of a long war with the British authorities, conducted under both Labour and Conservative administrations.

Caroline was an instant hit. Rival pirate stations were soon setting up their own services, some operating from ships, others from old forts in the Thames estuary. New music filled the airwaves, and a generation of young Brits thrilled to the new phenomenon of the 'disc jockey'. People who would later become household names were heard for the first time; Tony Blackburn, Simon Dee, Dave Lee Travis. The Swinging Sixties had well and truly arrived.

But all these stations were free from any sort of government control. Something was bound to happen, and on 14th August 1967, it did - with a vengeance. The Marine & Broadcasting (Offences) Act became law. To the pirate stations, it became known as Black Monday.

While it is not surprising that some form of regulation would follow the boom in pirate radio, the M&B(O)A was an astonishingly harsh response. It was difficult to regulate those who operated in international waters, but the Act took a draconian approach to those within its aegis.

For example, any British subject found assisting an offshore radio station - supplying it with food, fuel or equipment, for instance - could face a two year prison sentence or a hefty fine. The law has always allowed for the accessory to a crime to be punished, but the M&B(O)A stretched that logic to breaking point. We do not punish a petrol pump attendant for filling the tank of a driver with convictions for speeding.

The M&B(O)A made it clear that government wanted to stamp out pirate radio completely, and was willing to use a pretty big stick to do so. By midnight of the day it was enacted, all the offshore radio stations had closed down.

All except one.

Radio Caroline had decided to tough it out. For the next 22 years she would do just that.

Financial difficulties plagued her for the next five years, but by 1972 she was broadcasting once again from another vessel, the Mi Amigo, in international waters off the Essex coast. The government stepped up its monitoring. In November 1975 she accidentally strayed into British waters. The Essex police, with Home Office officials, boarded her and shut her down. Her captain, engineer, and two DJs were charged under the M&B(O)A. A week later, Caroline was up and running again.

In 1976, action against those who assisted Caroline increased considerably. DJs and tender operators were charged. In one extraordinary case, John Jackson-Hunter, an 'ordinary' fan, was prosecuted for displaying a Radio Caroline sticker in his car!

In 1980, the Mi Amigo sank in a storm, and it seemed that where government had failed, the elements had succeeded. But by 1983 Caroline was back on the air, transmitting from a converted Atlantic trawler called the Ross Revenge. Once more, the authorities began to monitor her. Those who supplied the ship were arrested, as was DJ Andy Archer. In 1985, the government chartered the Dyoptric Surveyor to monitor her and another station, Laser, at a cost of รบ100,000 to the taxpayer. Shortly afterwards, Britain's territorial limits were extended. Caroline was forced out into the harsher waters of the North Sea.

By now, there was a perception aboard Caroline that things were getting extremely personal. When Howard Beer was found guilty at a Southend court of delivering fuel to the Ross Revenge, the judge sentenced him to nine months imprisonment. He appealed, the sentence was reduced, but he still spent seven weeks in jail.

Things finally came to a head in 1989.

According to those involved with Caroline at the time, one day in mid-July, a helicopter hovered over the Ross Revenge, taking photographs. Then she was 'buzzed' by an RAF jet and circled by a French naval launch, which photographed the anchor system. Next day, a Dutch supply vessel was intercepted by a cutter containing DTI officials accompanied by a police launch. As the vessel unloaded supplies, it was warned that there was an 'exclusion zone' around Caroline, and that it should move away. The Dutch ship continued to unload, as it was in international waters.

Next month the DTI returned, this time with a representative of the Dutch radio authorities and a large Dutch tug. Caroline's crew were told that international action was being taken to silence the station. The Ross Revenge was boarded by armed Dutch. Seven hours later, the ship had been gutted of all broadcasting equipment, including records. What could not be taken was smashed with sledgehammers. Those on board maintain the Ross Revenge was in international waters and that this was therefore an act of piracy.

In 1990, Parliament delivered the coup de grace. Last minute amendments to the Broadcasting Act meant that, from the day of its enactment, any station broadcasting even from international waters had to have a licence. The new law made it legal to seize equipment and arrest the crew. The armed forces could be used to do it by order of the Home Secretary, while everyone arrested had to comply, and had no right of appeal. Peter Moore maintains that the amendments could only have been designed to apply to Caroline.

The government sledgehammer had finally cracked the single remaining defiant nut.

Since 1990, Radio Caroline has stayed within the law, operating with occasional temporary licences. But as Peter Moore has discovered, government can be less than magnanimous.

"Since 1991, we have been playing by the rules. A few kind souls have put their jobs on the line in order to help, but in general our reward for being good boys has been precious little. For instance, it took two years of continuous negotiation to be allowed to move our ship from Kent to Essex. During the move, we were shadowed by the authorities for every mile of the voyage. Later, in order to celebrate our 30th birthday, we asked for a one month licence. The broadcasting capability on board the Ross Revenge can produce a seventy kilowatt signal. We were offered one watt. Paranoid I might be, but it does rather seem that someone is twisting the knife..."

It may seem reasonable to some that governments of both major parties took such action. The ability to broadcast to millions is, after all, a powerful tool, and in the wrong hands could be a threat to democracy. Government has a duty to act in the wider public interest. But what is the wider public interest - and who defines it?

The media, and in particular the broadcast media, wield a power that governments fear. Yet a free press - uncomfortable as it may make life for government on occasion - is one of the benchmarks of democracy.

Whether Caroline was right to maintain her defiance for so many years is irrelevant. Her story illustrates how uniquely dangerous government regards an independent voice transmitted over unrestricted airwaves and to what ends it will go to silence it. Radio Caroline was disobedient, not dangerous. It broadcast pop music, not propaganda. Was it necessary to break this particular butterfly on the wheel? In Britain in 1995, a single wealthy Australian businessman legally wields more power over the printed word and the airwaves than Radio Caroline ever did illegally. Is this right? In the land of the Citizen's Charter, are some citizens more equal than others?

In a mature democracy, the limits of law, and of public opinion, will be constantly tested. Civil disobedience is a natural and healthy by-product of freedom. Democracy can never be perfect, but when it works well it does so by a constant and watchful application of balance to the many opposing forces at work.

The law defines the principles that should apply as fair justice, minimum force and proportionate action. Arguably, Caroline enjoyed the benefit of none of these. Yet the law should constantly balance individual liberty with the shared interests of society. If this balance is lost, and the preoccupations of government weigh too heavily, people are at the mercy of subjective political will. Individual freedom is endangered. And government is in danger of defining its own interests as the interests of the nation.

If we genuinely treasure the idea of a society that embraces diversity and tolerates dissent, we need to redress the balance - to write a new contract between us and those who rule in our name. We have outgrown the parent-child relationship implicit in our subjecthood. The time has come to define and guarantee the rights and responsibilities of the individual and the state, and the relationship between the two. It must be a contract of equals.

Everybody should have a guaranteed stake in the process. Everybody should have their fair share of power. Everybody should own and understand the rules. And, most important of all, nobody should be excluded. Only when we have that contract will we come of age.

That contract is a written constitution.

"Just why do we do it? What is the desire to communicate via the radio that has caused us to endure thirty very difficult years? "It is not just about being able to play a Rolling Stones record to the population without authorisation to do so. It is all about freedom. Until silenced by the Broadcasting Act, with its sinister permission for armed intervention beyond this country's territory, Caroline was the only free voice broadcasting into the UK without actually being controlled by government. "Officials will trot out hogwash about possible interference and adherence to international treaties as the reason for pursuing Caroline, but the real reason, as has been admitted privately to me, is that what cannot be controlled must be eliminated."

Peter Moore, Station Manager, Radio Caroline (Radio Caroline, Last of the Pirates 30th anniversary souvenir booklet, 1994)

"I think we have to very seriously consider the enormous disadvantages of having a vast army of people who can communicate with each other very easily."

Home Office official, quoted on a Radio Caroline T-shirt

Stephen McGann became a signatory to Charter 88 about four years ago. He did so because he feels that the concerns of the people are now secondary to the interests of the main political parties in Parliament, and that the balance can only be restored with a written assertion of our rights and responsibilities. He is a strong supporter of a Bill of Rights, and anything that transforms a culture of official secrecy into one espousing freedom of information.

Steve lives in the Essex countryside with his wife, two cats and a mortgage.

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