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RADIOFAX at September 1992

We thought of the idea for this station many years ago and started writing to the British government requesting a licence in August 1986. Letters in reply were discouraging and evasive. They also betrayed a complete lack of understanding of the concept.

In the Republic of Ireland the Minister for Communications had made a statement that allowed unlicensed radio stations to operate pending the introduction of their Independent Radio and Television Commission. Knowing, in 1988, that formal licensing procedures were nearing a reality in the Republic, we decided to put the station on the air and actually demonstrate what the idea was all about. So, on 1st April 1988 Radiofax was born.

The response was terrific. We had 1500 letters in six months. No short wave station had ever experienced anything like it before. The people who actually use short wave were enthusiastic about the station. Those who regulate the spectrum were not at this stage so keen and we were visited at the office in Cranleigh by investigators from the Radiocommunications Agency of the DTI. This was after we wrote to the then Minister for Trade and Industry, Lord Young, telling him what we were doing and asking, that under the much publicised Enterprise Initiative, he should consider issuing us with a licence. Satisfied that transmissions were not coming from the United Kingdom they could take the matter no further, apart, doubtless, from making a complaint to Ireland. Nothing at all positive was done by this 'department of enterprise' to explore options for development.

In March 1988, following press reports that Margaret Thatcher was chairing a committee concerned with introducing free market forces throughout broadcasting we wrote to the then Prime Minister and received a response which was so short, and irrelevant to the points raised, that it either showed a complete lack of comprehension of what we were about, or was deliberately intended to be insulting. Margaret Thatcher herself sent us no reply, and we received a letter from the Broadcasting Department at the Home Office, which informed us that HF broadcasting allocations in the United Kingdom are used only for the external services provided by the BBC. The letter continued by telling us that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have direct responsibility for the policy implications of this and say that the Government would not be prepared to grant a licence to private external broadcasters in current circumstances. It is difficult to guess quite what these 'current circumstances' are supposed to be and, as we all know, that letter is not even accurate, since the Voice of America and Radio Canada are just two, amongst stations other than the BBC, to broadcast from England.

More encouragingly, in October 1988 we had a letter from someone who knew a great deal about broadcasting. Lord Thomson, then chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority wrote to us saying that he regretted that legislation precluded the IBA from helping by giving us a licence, but that he wished good luck to what he called 'the exciting project'.

On 1st January 1989 new broadcasting legislation came into force in the Republic of Ireland and, along with the majority of other stations in Ireland, we closed down. Early 1989 was a busy time for paperwork, with our response to the recently published White Paper on Broadcasting from the British Government. The Green Paper the previous year had at least mentioned the existence of short wave, but the White Paper was silent on the subject. We sent in our response to the White Paper in February 1989 and the Home Office acknowledgement that our points would be taken into account as we moved towards the introduction of new broadcasting legislation, was only to be followed by a Broadcasting Act which made no mention at all of the potential for short wave services.

At the time when the state broadcaster, RTE, was the only organisation in Ireland that could be licensed, we approached Vincent Finn, Director General of RTE, with the suggestion of collaboration in a short wave project, along the same lines as the joint Atlantic 252 operation. Though RTE was not interested in what it believed to be the high capital cost of an HF installation, the reply, from Vincent Finn personally, did confirm that Ireland has access to short wave frequencies under international agreements.

Over a period of several years we had correspondence with the broadcasting expert of the Tynwald, the government of the Isle of Man. Though initially enthusiastic to see the Isle of Man taking a lead in new radio developments it seems that the constraints of having their frequency usage directed for them by Whitehall proved too big a stumbling block. We also looked into the possibility of obtaining licensing from the States of the Channel Islands, but much the same situation prevailed there.

In May 1990 the newly created Radio Authority in London wrote to us saying that they were not permitted access to short waves by the Home Office. Their letter continued by wishing well with the idea.

With stonewalling from the government in Britain, and no realistic prospect of getting on the air legally in England, we looked again at an old and much loved favourite; Ireland. The continued survival of pre-1989 stations led us to look into the legal situation in the Republic and our advice was, that under the Constitution, and considering the new legislation made no provision for regulating short wave services, we could continue, without the new Act applying to our operation.

So, we did. We started broadcasting again in April 1991 with better equipment and stronger signals and our return was marked by a torrent of welcoming letters. Since our first letter to The Minister for Communications in Dublin in May 1987 we have written annually requesting time be found to look into the question of services on short wave. Replies from Dublin have merely referred to domestic broadcasting issues having more pressing priority. In contrast to London, there is notably no nonsense about frequencies not being available.

Over the past year and a half the station has developed well. A good variety of material is broadcast with items to appeal to many tastes and the station has provided an outlet for independent producers. Much of the programming we carry would stand up on any national network.

Our transmission system has proved itself and served us well throughout this period of continuous twenty four hour operations. Our frequencies were carefully chosen with regard to the international Radio Regulations and over thousands of hours of transmissions no ship, no aeronautical service or any other user of the short wave spectrum has ever asked us to move channel. On occasions when other broadcasters have operated close to our frequency, or produced spurious outputs which caused interference to our low power signals we found immense helpfulness and goodwill. Even a fax from us to Russia met with a willingness to help and transmitters readjusted to clear our frequency.

This brings us to the present day, where we are cooperating with the authorities in Ireland and closing down in order to continue discussions about issuing of a licence so that Radiofax can become permanent. Actually operating Radiofax has been more effective than any number of words to describe the nature of the station. We close down as we hear from the United Nations station, Radio For Peace International. This station, in territory ceded to the United Nations by Costa Rica, is so impressed by the quality of our programmes that they want to carry our material and hoped we might give air time to some U.N. programmes in Europe.

And what of Britain? Our latest letter, in January this year, to Peter Lloyd, then the Minister with responsibility for Broadcasting at the Home Office, brought a brief reply, three months later, from the Broadcasting Department saying that it was unlikely that authorisation could be given in the short term, since the proposal supposedly raised complex issues.

Faced with a complete lack of progress and this seemingly negligent attitude we sought advice about the scope for complaints to Ombudsmen about mal-administration, or the Courts for judicial review. Neither is really appropriate. But we were told of a way in which we might transmit from England. The Wireless Telegraphy Act describes offences of installing and operating transmitters without a licence duly issued by the Secretary of State.

Where the Secretary of State has failed to provide any form of licence for a new category of service the Wireless Telegraphy Act may not apply. Amongst precedents quoted which have been permitted in unlicensed form until regulation was introduced are radio microphones for stage and broadcast use, car alarms, baby listening devices and intercoms. As far as broadcasting is concerned there were many unlicensed stations around Britain which operated until the government addressed the subject of community radio. A subject of much publicity, the Shetland Islands Broadcasting Company operated continuously, with no licence, from November 1987 until procedures were in place for the Radio Authority to issue a licence four years later, in 1991. The people in Shetland had been told that if their operation were stopped wrongly then substantial damages could be claimed. Our situation parallels that in Shetland, with an unserved community of interest group and no technical reason why the service should not exist.

On the other hand, we also have alternative legal advice, which quite simply says the law is absolute and there is no obligation upon the Secretary of State to provide licences, no matter how unreasonable this may be.

Letters from listeners now support operating without a licence by a substantial majority. This is markedly different from opinion four years ago and the mood has certainly changed. People feel government has had long enough to produce a policy and, that in a scale of seriousness, for us to broadcast without a licence is on a par with trading on a Sunday.

Unfortunately, that sentiment is not matched by the heavy penalties available in the recent Broadcasting Act. Thirty four people have broadcast on Radiofax, while a further ten are involved behind the scenes, dealing with engineering and administration. If we transmit unlawfully in England those in Britain could be fined and face confiscation of equipment, records and tapes, as well as the oppressive prohibition from employment in independent radio for five years.

If we were ever prosecuted there is a fair chance that several box files containing all the letters from listeners, together with letters of support from assorted Members of Parliament and other luminaries would produce leniency from a court. It is even possible to speculate about the case being dismissed or resulting in a completely derisory fine, without any confiscation order, as an indication that the case should not have been pursued. Who knows? None of it is a particularly appealing prospect.

We have done all we can for the moment. Antagonism within the authorities is evaporating. Now it is down to you, by sheer persistence, to make sure that some progress is made. The only thing that will help is letters to government. When you get a reply, write again and keep the subject alive until you get a response that says a licence has been issued. It is up to you to make sure that the need for action on independent short wave broadcasting is not ignored while we are off the air.

We are most proud of what you have had to say about the service and how you value what we have been able to achieve without the benefit of live transmission. Comments from those with visual handicap are alone sufficient justification and reward. The letters you have written to various people in authority put the case with far more impact than approaches from us ever can. Every single letter from an independent outsider counts and can influence developments.

If you live in Eire contact your T.D. and get him or her interested in the subject. If you live in the United Kingdom write to, or go and see, your Member of Parliament.

The Irish Ambassador in the United Kingdom is Mr. Joseph Small, Irish Embassy, 17 Grosvenor Place, London SW1X 7HR. In Britain the Minister with responsibility for broadcasting is Peter Brooke [David Mellor, on the audio, had departed], Department of National Heritage, Horse Guards Road, London SW1P 3AL.

You can get a printed copy of all these details if you send a stamped addressed envelope, or one International Reply Coupon.


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