Adrian Johns


On his book Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age

Cover Interview of December 07, 2010

The wide angle

Death of a Pirate tells a story about the politics of media from the 1920s to the present.

Broadcasting was something radically new when it arrived after World War I, and nobody knew for sure what form it should take.  In Britain, a semi-autonomous state corporation, the British Broadcasting Corporation, was created to make radio into a public service.  It was a great success, and by the 1930s British politicians were arguing that the BBC represented a model for the future of the country’s economy as a whole.

But conservative critics despised the corporation, and amateur experimenters resented its monopoly on the airwaves.

After WWII, the conservatives mounted a fresh campaign to eliminate the BBC, reasoning that if the BBC could be dethroned then much of the social-democratic consensus would follow.  In their eyes the great modern struggle in politics and economics between laissez faire and intervention—between Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes—might come down to this.

The wave of pirate radio enterprises in the Sixties offered them an opportunity.  It led to a wide-ranging debate about the media and public culture.

Death of a Pirate shows how that debate came to pass, and how it was resolved.

One outcome was a harbinger of the new age of digital libertarianism, in the form of what Wired magazine called the world’s first online data haven—a soi-disant nation called Sealand, originally established in 1967 in a bid to allow pirate radio to survive the aftermath of Calvert’s death.

The book thus describes a crisis of media piracy—a moment when a medium and its relationship to society had to be redefined, calling into question long-cherished impressions of the society itself.

This is not the only such crisis to have occurred in modern history.  I give a broader account of their history in Piracy—which I discussed on Rorotoko before.

In writing that book I came to believe that modern history has seen a series of crises of intellectual piracy, extending back to at least 1700.  The basic terms of engagement between creativity, commerce, and culture, have been redefined in those crises.  What happened in 1966 was one of them—and perhaps, for us today, the most important one.