The Other Battle for Britain

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One of the crucial decisions in American culture was to keep broadcasting mostly out of the hands of the government. That was not the decision in the United Kingdom.

Death of a Pirate is about the long struggle to modify that decision. The word “pirate” refers not to brigands but to unlicensed broadcasters; the death is about the killing, on June 21, 1966, of one of them by another. It was not a typical event but a shocking one, and it provided the Labour government in Britain with a convenient excuse to shut down the “pirate” stations. But the stations had made their point about the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Johns, a Briton employed at the University of Chicago as a professor of history, does two big things with this book. The first is to tell the story of the BBC and the long fight against its monopoly by free-market economists, business people, music promoters, and ordinary Britons. The second is to use documents unsealed in 2001 to tell the story of the killing of Reginald Calvert by Oliver Smedley.

A British reader of my generation may appreciate this part, because he will remember the story. An American is less likely to care about all the details. The reader of Liberty will be attracted to the story of classical liberal ideas and bold entrepreneurial moves in the struggle for private commercial radio in Britain.

The BBC was created in 1927. It was a new thing, a state-owned corporation. As the national broadcaster, writes Johns, the BBC was imagined by its political creators as “autonomous from both the state and private industry.” It was to serve “the common good in a domain that it dominated, free of the inefficiencies of competition.”

The market-based relay company quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture.

Critics objected. Britain never had a British Newspaper Corporation to publish all newspapers or a British Books Corporation to publish all books. It didn’t have it, and it didn’t want it. So why have a single corporation own all broadcasting?

The answer is: because people were led to believe in it.

The BBC had a more elevated mission than any mere private broadcaster’s. Its mission was “to improve British culture through broadcasting.” It would not simply aim at the mass market but would offer “balanced programming,” a mix of such things as “string quartets, educational talks, sports commentaries and dance music.”

This was not meant as background music while the subscriber was washing dishes, weeding the garden, or fixing the plumbing. Radios were of large size then — the precursors of TV sets — and you had only one. The BCC supposed that you sat in your living room and paid attention. You were also supposed to pay cash for the privilege — a license fee equivalent today to $60 to $100 a year.

Politically, this conception of the BBC won the day. In the marketplace, it did not. Commercial stations, denied a place on British soil, set up shop in France and elsewhere and broadcast British content and British ads back to the people of Britain.

The market also offered “relay.” We would call it cable radio. This was popular in working-class districts. The customer paid a monthly fee, and the relay company provided a line and a set. It was cheaper than buying a radio set on installments, and usually the reception was better. The relay company received broadcast signals and chose which ones to pipe to people’s homes. The company could tell when its customers were switched on, and it quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture. By the mid-1930s, relay had more than 200,000 subscribers.

The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

In 1935 a parliamentary committee recommended that the relay companies be nationalized. It wasn’t done; the Conservatives were in power. After World War II, however, Labour took over and vowed to create a socialist Britain. The BBC looked to be in an invincible position.

It wasn’t.

A thing had happened at the London School of Economics. The school had been set up by socialists and dominated by critics of laissez-faire. But it had hired a few critics, and in 1930s three of them became a kind of “anti-Keynesian party.” They were Lionel Robbins, Friedrich Hayek, and Arnold Plant.

Johns devotes some attention to Hayek, his battle in the 1930s with Keynes, and his famous book, The Road to Serfdom (1944). Of the three professors, however, the key person for the radio story was Plant. His specialty was the economics of monopoly and information. He was opposed not only to having radio in the hands of a state corporation, but also to the patent and copyright laws that created monopoly power. As Johns says, “Plant quietly became Britain’s most important critic of such monopolies before the rise of the open-source software movement.”

In 1938 Plant set out to find out about Britain’s radio listeners. Researchers knocked on thousands of doors and asked people what they had switched on. He found that many were listening to Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy, and the other Continental stations. The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. Smedley was acquitted of murder, but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

Plant’s other contribution was the training of Ronald Coase, who half a century later would win a Nobel Prize in economics. Plant set Coase to work on issues of broadcasting. The eventual result was a book, British Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly (1950), which Johns characterizes as “the ‘Road to Serfdom’ of the modern media.”

Coase argued that there was no economic reason, and no technical reason, for the BBC to be a monopoly. Those were smokescreens. The BBC had been granted monopoly status for a cultural reason: to support the claim by political elites “to determine on behalf of the listener which broadcast material he should hear.” To Plant and Coase, the issue was control of information. Freeing that from the state, Johns says, “reflected imperatives buried deep in the heart of neoclassical economics.”

Coase’s book influenced the debate. In 1951 the Conservatives returned to power and began using his arguments to push for commercial television. By 1954, they had it, at least in a small, one-channel way. But Britain still did not allow commercial radio. In the 1960s, entrepreneurs responded with “pirate radio” — commercial radio stations operating not from foreign jurisdictions but from stateless space: the seas. They used ships and abandoned World War II antiaircraft platforms outside the British state’s three-mile limit.

It took unusual people to do this. The ideologue of the group was Oliver Smedley. He was a classical liberal who in 1955 had been one of the founders of the Institute for Economic Affairs, the UK’s preeminent free-market think tank. He thought of pirate radio as a political attack on the British state — which it was. Another was Kitty Black, a theatrical agent who, Johns writes, was “contemptuous of government intervention in the arts.” Another was Reginald Calvert, a promoter of pop musical acts. There were others.

Death of a Pirate goes into much detail about who did what. Several of the ventures were half-baked, but at their peak the “pirate” stations had a large audience. Some offered 12 hours a day of pop music at a time when the BBC was limited by law to just 28 hours of music a week — a law designed to protect the musicians’ union.

The British government didn’t act, Johns says, partly because the stations were popular and partly because “nobody wanted to take charge.” Labour, which won the election of 1964, was not sympathetic to commercial broadcasting. Labour’s idea was to use state radio to create a “university of the air” to uplift British workers. Prime Minister Harold Wilson even appointed a bureaucrat — Jennie Lee, the wife of Aneurin Bevan, creator of the National Health Service — to accomplish this. Meanwhile, the British public was listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, often on transistor sets and car radios tuned to unlicensed stations.

Then came the killing. Calvert’s company had appropriated an abandoned antiaircraft fort — “sinister-looking boxes perched on steel legs” — eight miles offshore. Calvert had a used radio transmitter of Smedley’s that he had not paid for. Smedley wanted it back. He couldn’t get help from the police — the tower was outside the British state — so he hired a crew to take it. They stormed the platform and knocked Calvert’s radio station off the air. This led to Calvert bursting into Smedley’s house and Smedley's killing him with a shotgun.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. This had a political effect similar to the one in America when Timothy McVeigh killed government workers in Oklahoma City: it generated a revulsion against people with an anti-state point of view. Smedley was acquitted of murder (self-defence), but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

The broadcasters had, however, made their point. Labour responded by creating the BBC’s first pop station. In the next Conservative government, under Edward Heath, the British state licensed commercial radio.

It’s a fascinating case in how to break the hold of a state monopoly.

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