Pirate broadcasters are thugs with links to drug gangs who hijack the airwaves with illegal antennas on high-rise roofs. We report on the violent struggle between them and the contractors hired to take them off the air
It is 9am on an overcast Friday morning in east London, and standing on the rooftop of a high-rise tower block are a government investigator, a security officer from the local council and a burly man from a local scaffolding firm. At the foot of the building, sitting in a transit, is the scaffolder's colleague; he is guarding the van and waiting with a second council security officer for the group to return.

"Any signs of trouble?" asks the scaffolder on the roof over his mobile.

"There was a group of young blokes in their early 20s here a minute ago and I think they wrote the number plate down," his colleague replies.

"OK, I'll try and be as quick as possible."

This may seem like a clip from a British gangster flick, but it is a typical occurrence on one of the many hundreds of government-led enforcement actions against pirate radio broadcasters operating in urban areas. Building spent a morning with a team clamping down on illegal transmissions – and found that a ferocious war is being waged by unscrupulous gangs of pirate DJs against construction firms and the council maintenance workers employed to help the government take action.

A DTI insider paints an alarming picture of why the situation is so serious. He says the pirates have links to organised crime and that their broadcasts are used to advertise illegal dance events where drugs dealers are in operation. "That's why it is so difficult to act against these pirate radio stations," he says. "They are a window to the drugs underworld and they need to be in operation to advertise meeting points for drug deals – so the stakes are very high. Meddling with these gangs' equipment brings considerable risk, and these people are prone to using violence."

In order to get their signal out, the gangs need to mount their aerials on the tops of tall buildings; this means the top of tower blocks, which they persistently and illegally access. Pirate DJs then create a host of problems, the most serious of which is radio signal interference. This would be bad enough if it just affected local households, but can also jam the emergency services, and even air traffic control. They also steal the building's electricity supplies and damage properties.

Hackney in north-east London is a prime example. Last month, with help from the police, the council removed illegal radio aerials from the poverty-ridden Morland Estate. A council spokesperson says that they were erected 40 ft in the air by scaffolding poles and could easily have collapsed on to passers-by below.

Hackney council's housing cabinet member, Jamie Carswell, says the pirates try to disguise their antennas by hiding them among communal aerials. "They cause terrible interference with people's radios at home," he says. An associated problem is that pirate DJs attract other unsavoury characters as hangers-on, creating a large gang that "makes local people very nervous". But the problem is not only confined to London – anecdotal evidence has emerged that there is also a problem with radio pirates in Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds, and two weeks ago there was a government-led action in Southend, on the Essex coast, to remove dangerous aerials from high-rise rooftops.

I’ve heard of council workers being stalked by pirates. That’s why they employ us – we won’t be bullied Scaffolder on pirate radio clampdown team

A huge effort is being expended to clamp down on the pirates.

The source at the DTI says the government, in partnership with local councils, is considering rooftop security as a short-term solution to the problem. "At the moment it is only an idea, but there are talks with local authorities about having security on the rooftops at key times when the pirates want to broadcast – say, at the weekend." Last year, the Radio Communications Agency, an executive agency of the DTI, carried out 1046 operations nationwide against the broadcasters, and these resulted in 39 prosecutions.

There are plans to improve on the figures by the end of this year, as the communications bill currently passing through parliament is likely mean pirate broadcasters will face police arrest.

The pirates employ aggressive tactics to counter the government's efforts to stop them erecting aerials and transmitters on rooftops. These include attacking council maintenance staff, issuing threats and trying to intimidate the contractors employed to dismantle their – often lethally dangerous – electrical equipment.

A DTI spokesperson warns of the violence associated with the gangs. "We have heard of threats and attacks on council and maintenance workers. Our advice is to be on guard, not to risk your safety, and to call us or the police if there is any suspected pirate activity."

"We have a mutual interest with councils in clearing pirates off," he says. "Sometimes we will use contractors to help get dangerous aerials down and sometimes we will work with council maintenance staff as well." The spokesperson adds that the DTI is keen to discuss such problems with councils and in some boroughs has worked with them to enhance the security of buildings.

The scaffolders that Building met on one of their blitzes asked to remain anonymous. They say that counter-intimidation is often an element in the action against the pirates. The two scaffolders have shaven heads and look somewhat unsavoury themselves. One says: "I've heard of council workers being stalked by these radio pirates in an attempt to make them stop removing their aerials. That's why they employ people like us – we won't be bullied."

However, the scaffolder concedes that the intimidation he and his colleagues receive from the pirate gangs can be serious. He says that having the number plates on their vans taken down is now routine. One of the scaffolders says he knows of contractors that have had van windows smashed and have even been physically attacked by the gangs.

What is pirate radio?

Pirate broadcasts are made by broadcasters who do not have a licence issued under Section 1 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949. Independent broadcasters must also have a broadcasting licence issued by the radio authority.

Why is pirate radio a problem?

  • It causes interference to the broadcasts of legal radio stations, depriving them of their audiences.

  • Frequencies and space on the radio spectrum are stolen, and the use of poor transmitting equipment makes interference inevitable.

  • The use of unauthorised premises as transmitter sites leads to criminal damage and theft, the burden of which falls on building owners and residents.

  • Pirate broadcasters pay no business, council or income taxes or VAT.

  • Pirates also disrupt the vital communications of the emergency services and, most worryingly, air traffic control.