Ofcom sharpens cutlasses for pirate radio assault

Internal docs expose plans for fines, surveillance

Getting a conviction will be easier if Ofcom broadens their net, so pirates could face charges of "possession and intended use of unlicensed equipment" rather than broadcasting itself, and it's not just the pirates that need to be careful as Ofcom intends to "target those who support the radio station... manufacturing or installing transmitters".

Selling radio transmitters has never been illegal before, but Ofcom would like retailers to take more responsibility for checking out their customers, as its recent prosecution of Broadcast Warehouse demonstrates. Broadcast Warehouse wasn't done for supplying kit to a pirate, but the prosecution against them was based on evidence collected during a raid on a pirate station.

Not that Ofcom intends to limit evidence gathering to raids. "A new approach is currently being adopted by Ofcom, whereby in-depth investigations into the individuals involved in the act of illegal broadcasting as being undertaken by our field staff", not to mention use of "investigation powers, such as access to certain data about telephone, email and internet communications used by illegal broadcasters and to undertake covert surveillance [as permitted by] (Regulatory Investigatory Powers Act 2000)".

A question of character

The report also suggests that Ofcom becomes an authorised legislative body under the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill, which would give the regulator the ability to hand out fixed-penalty fines without all the mucking about with courts and magistrates and so forth.

The alternative would be to enforce, and strengthen, the "Character of Service" requirements that apply to all radio stations. These specify the kind of music stations are allowed to play, and the character of the radio station. Unfortunately this is exactly the kind of regulation that Ofcom wants to get rid of, believing the free market will always serve the needs of the majority. Character of Service requirements are already much weaker for digital (DAB) stations, apparently allowing them more flexibility to respond to changing fashions, and the weaker requirements are being more widely applied.

Oddly enough, the only station that Ofcom found that commanded the respect of the pirates and their listeners was BBC's 1Xtra. Of course, 1Xtra is DAB-only, so there's plenty of scope left for the pirates - at least until digital conquers all.

Ofcom are planning a major review of analogue broadcasting on both AM and FM, in 2009 and 2010 respectively, and new licences are set to expire in December 2015, when optimists predict digital radio will have taken off.

There is a hope that the problem will solve itself as DAB requires infrastructure beyond most pirates' resources - though if they're really making five grand a week, the investment might prove worthwhile regardless of what Ofcom tries to do about it. ®

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