On Easter Sunday 1964 – the date, said O’Rahilly, was chosen because his grandfather had died fighting the British in the Easter Rising of 1916 – Radio Caroline took to the air, and began to broadcast non-stop pop. Other so-called pirate stations swiftly followed the lead, most famously Radio London, but also Radios City, King, Victor, England, Scotland and Britain amongst others, some broadcasting from ships, others from abandoned fortifications out in the North Sea.
They were an instant success, claiming a listenership of 20 million, and they were funded partly by record companies paying for airplay and partly by advertising, often from unexpectedly establishment clients – the first advert on Caroline was for Woburn Abbey, the family seat of the Duke of Bedford, to be followed by the likes of the National Coal Board, the Egg Marketing Board, Royal Ascot and even the police; the station claimed that in its first eighteen months it grossed £750,000 through advertising.
All of this was perfectly legal, but was frowned upon by the formidable forces ranged against the pirates. They included the BBC, who didn’t like losing their monopoly or being made to look out of touch; the newspapers and commercial television channels, who felt their advertising base was being threatened; the Musicians’ Union, who objected to there being no live work for their members; and the record industry, offended by the promotion of new independent record labels and ‘convinced that if hit records were played too many times, people wouldn’t bother to go out and buy them’ (the fall in the number of singles sold as the pirates got big offered some evidence for this).
Most significant of all was the left wing of the Labour Party, which believed that broadcasting was too important to be let out of state control; it had objected to the introduction of commercial television in the 1950s, and would do so again in the 1970s with commercial radio – it was hardly likely to take to the idea of the pirates, who didn’t even pay tax.
Leading this group was Anthony Wedgwood Benn, a former BBC employee who was now postmaster general in the Labour government, with responsibility for broadcasting policy. (The fact that Radios England and Britain were based on a ship named Laissez Faire seemed almost designed to infuriate Benn, one of the keenest advocates of a fully planned economy.) When he took office in October 1964, he was told by his civil servants that ‘legislation was at an advanced stage of development on the radio pirates’ with the aim of ‘making it illegal to advertise or to supply pirates with certain services’.
By May 1966 there had been no progress and he was becoming impatient: ‘I have tried to get a pirate Bill into the legislative programme in three separate sessions,’ he fretted, ‘and the cabinet had got cold feet, with Harold Wilson having the coldest of all. He enjoys the pirates and has always been trying to find some way of taxing them. This of course would be guaranteed to consolidate their strength and the Treasury would then never let us kill them.’ The prime minister, it appeared, was a particular fan of Radio 390, an easy-listening station...