Belfast student radio station Blast 106 wins legal battle to stay on air
Court of appeal orders Ofcom to extend station’s broadcasting licence
Blast 106: refusal of licence extension would be disproportionately unfair result, appeal court rules.
A Belfast-based student radio station has won a legal battle over its right to continue broadcasting. UK communications watchdog Ofcom went to the court of appeal after a judge ordered it to extend Blast 106’s licence.
It was claimed the case should instead have been sent back for the regulator to make a fresh decision following that ruling. But senior judges in Belfast held the body could not have carried out a fair re-hearing before the station’s broadcasting permit expired.
Dismissing the appeal, Lord Justice Girvan said: “To refuse to make an order requiring an extension would be to visit on the licence-holder a disproportionately unfair result compared to the alleged unfairness to Ofcom in having to grant a licence which, if abused, could be revoked.”
Blast first launched legal proceedings after it was found to be in breach of its community radio licence. According to Ofcom it had failed to meet key commitments on speech and music content.
Staffed and run by volunteers, the station was launched in 2009 to serve students and young people in the greater Belfast area. It has a remit to educate, inform, entertain and represent its audience.
After monitoring the station’s programmes over three days in January 2013 and again in February 2014, Ofcom stated it was not delivering the required service. Failures were identified in key commitments to provide local student news and politics, promote debate and discussion, produce documentaries and include a varied music output.
Having been found in breach, the Broadcasting Licensing Committee (BLC) decided in June last year not to renew Blast’s licence. The permit was set to expire at midnight on July 7th but the station’s legal team launched an emergency judicial review challenge.
They claimed procedural unfairness over a failure to properly consider requests for an oral hearing before Ofcom reached a final decision. Lawyers for Blast 106 also contended the regulator had not monitored its output over enough time to gain a balanced picture on speech and music content.
In a High Court ruling delivered just hours before the station’s licence was due to expire, a judge held the process was unfair and disproportionate. Mr Justice Treacy quashed the regulator’s decisions and ordered an extension of Blast’s licence.
Ofcom challenged his verdict that it was compelled to renew the broadcasting permit. Counsel for the watchdog contended that the case should instead have been sent back to it for a fresh decision — even if that was after July 7th.
However, Lord Justice Girvan, sitting with Lord Justices Coghlin and Gillen, pointed out that Blast could have faced criminal prosecution if it continued broadcasting past the midnight deadline without a licence extension. “We are satisfied that the suggested hearing on July 7th could not have provided a fair opportunity for Blast to present its case,” he said.
“We conclude without hesitation that Ofcom had disabled itself from conducting a fair re-hearing of the matter before the expiry of the deadline.”
Lord Justice Girvan also noted how the licence is currently operating satisfactorily, the the renewal producing no breach of public interest or injustice.
He added: “If the judge had not made the order which he made Blast would have been unable to broadcast after July 7th in a situation in which, even on Ofcom’s current case, it may well have been entitled to a valid renewal.”
An order for costs was also made in favour of the station.