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Belfast student radio station wins battle to stay on air

A Belfast-based student radio station found to be in breach of its licence has won a High Court battle to continue broadcasting.

Communications watchdog Ofcom said Blast 106 had failed to meet key commitments on speech and music content.

But in a ruling delivered just hours before the station’s licence was due to expire, a judge held that the process was unfair and disproportionate.

Mr Justice Treacy quashed the regulator’s decision and ordered an extension of Blast 106’s community radio licence.

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.

But after monitoring the station’s programmes over three days in January 2013 and again in February this year Ofcom stated that 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 last month not to renew Blast 106’s licence.

The permit was set to expire at midnight on July 7, 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 that the regulator had not monitored its output over enough time to gain a balanced picture on speech and music content.

In a further ground of challenge they said safeguards were denied because Ofcom had not followed its own procedures, including steps on possible sanctions.

After hearing submissions the judge sat on Monday to give his verdict just before the expiry deadline.

He held that Ofcom ignored a request from Blast 106’s solicitors for an oral hearing after learning the regulator’s preliminary view.

A decision was made not to consider sanctions over the alleged breach – which would have involved due process safeguards.

That meant all that was left to consider was the station’s application in January for an extension to its licence.

Mr Justice Treacy said: “In my view it was unfair for the breach decision and the no extend decision to have been taken without conscientious engagement with the request for an oral hearing.”

He also held that under statutory sanctions procedures in the Broadcasting Act 1990 there should have been an opportunity to make oral representations before a final decision was taken on the extension application.

 

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