Johnnie Walker confronts Tony Benn over rocking the boat: How DJ and former Postmaster General faced off over pirate radio, 50 years on

Mr Walker was interviewing Mr Benn as part of his month-long show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

As reconciliations go, it took its time in coming. For almost 50 years, Johnnie Walker and Tony Benn have represented two sides of a battle that defined British radio. One was a maverick DJ, playing records out of a rusting ship to circumvent a ban on broadcasting pop. The other was the Labour MP and then Postmaster-General, determined to close the loophole that allowed Radio Caroline to thrive.

Tonight, in a sometimes-tense meeting, the two opponents met face-to-face for the first time. Mr Walker was interviewing Mr Benn as part of his month-long show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “Never did I think, all those years ago, when I was put out of work by a piece of Labour party law steered by this man, that I would interview him 47 years later,” Walker told a 150-strong audience at the New Town Theatre. “He turned me into a criminal. I’ve been looking forward to this.”

When Mr Benn appeared onstage, looking frail and unshaven, the two men shook hands. “It’s quite a privilege to have you on my show,” said Walker. Mr Benn was typically unapologetic. He even claimed that, had he not banned pirate radio, Radio 1 would never have been created, which “brings music to far more people”.

The battle of the airwaves began with the launch of Radio Caroline in March 1964. At that time, Britain was in the grips of a cultural revolution, as bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones burst onto the scene with unprecedented energy. So terrified was the establishment that the BBC rationed pop music to a few hours per week on the Light Programme. When Ronan O’Rahilly, a young Irish pop manager, discovered that unlicensed ships were broadcasting rock music to audiences in the Netherlands, he did the same for Britain.

It lasted only three years. Tony Benn fought vigorously against it, but by the time he had managed to outlaw pirate radio in August 1967, the establishment had loosened its collar enough for the BBC to launch Radio 1 six weeks later. Pirate DJs like John Peel and Tony Blackburn were soon hired, but Johnnie Walker was not. He was determined to keep Caroline going, even if it meant breaking the law. He later learned that a memo was sent to the controller of Radio 1 1967 that said: “On no account should Johnnie Walker be employed for at least a year to let the taint of criminality subside.”

Mr Walker was still visibly angry tonight. “This was one of the greatest musical explosions in history, and the BBC decided to play only an hour on Saturday morning,” he said. “But teenagers were desperate to hear it, and, three and a half miles off the Essex coast, pirate radios were doing that. And people loved them. So, did you genuinely believe they were a bad thing, or were you doing the bidding of Harold Wilson?”

Mr Benn explained that musicians weren’t being paid for the music pirate radios were playing, and that foreign governments were complaining that they were stealing their radio lengths. “They threatened to do the same to our own stations, like Radio 4. I had to protect us from foreign countries that were threatening to broadcast on our airwaves. And I happened to be in the hot seat at the time.”

Walker did later join Radio 1, in 1969, but would then fall out with them over his choice of music. Benn was given the now defunct post of Postmaster-General in Harold Wilson’s weak 1964 government. He oversaw the opening of London’s telephone tower, then London’s tallest building, and proposed axing the Queen’s head from stamps. While that campaign failed, he won his crusade against pirate radio, despite having worked as a BBC radio producer before becoming an MP.

The wide-ranging interview covered everything from trade unions and the Iraq war to Benn’s new beard, which Walker described as “trendy”. “I’m too lazy to shave,” Benn explained. “I hope it hasn’t given offence.”

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn