Mary Whitehouse - British moral media campaigner, 1910 - 2001
"If violence is shown as normal on the television screen it will help to create a violent society…I am not narrow-minded or old-fashioned. But I am square, and proud of it, if that means having a sense of values."
"She really wanted television to be propaganda for a very moral view of the world, not the imperfect world we live in."
— Michael Grade
To many, Mary Whitehouse was a crusading angel, fighting a growing tendency to portray sex and violence in the media as acceptable. To others, she was an interfering old bat, meddling in the artistic freedom of those producing programmes. Whichever side you happen to be on, she was undeniably a force to be reckoned with, tirelessly fighting a war to uphold standards of decency and morality, battling for over 30 years.
Born on 13th June, 1910 in Nuneaton, Mary Hutcheson went to grammar school in Chester before continuing her teacher training at a local college. Her first job in Wednesfield put her in touch with a generation growing up with the mass media (most homes had a radio by this time), and as time passed she began to see the effects of it on young, impressionable minds.
She joined the Oxford Movement (later Moral Rearmarment), and it was here that she met Ernest Whitehouse and fell in love. They were married in 1940, and together they raised their three sons. Ernest was to be a stalwart companion for her, doing all manner of household chores in order for her to have the time for her campaigning. They celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary in March 2000, and Ernest died in the July.
Clean Up Television
By 1964, Mary had seen enough of what she considered "a blight on our youth", and began campaigning to clean up the media (most especially television). From 1963 onward she attacked the BBC (notably the then Director-General, Hugh Carelton Greene) for failing to set and maintain standards of morals and decency. The Clean Up Television organisation was started in 1964 following a public meeting in Birmingham attended by over 3,000 people. Mary was not alone in feeling that things had gone too far, and later that year, the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association began working in the same direction.
Once she was seen to represent a larger group (NVLA had over 40,000 members), Mary quickly attracted the attention of the media, and it was not long before she herself came under attack. Those in opposition to her maintained that people wanted to be able to choose for themselves with regard to their own, and their children's, entertainment. She responded in what was to become her high-ground tone
"if violence was constantly portrayed on television as normal behaviour, it would help to create a violent society. If we all go ahead and do just what we want to do, well that's moral and cultural anarchy."
Her strong Christian viewpoint meant that she found quite a lot that was unacceptable. Bad language, blasphemy
, showing nudity (especially full-frontal nudity
), and the portrayal of violence, all these she considered as being in her purview
She was most critical of the BBC, given that pretty much everyone contributed to it through the TV Licence, and she expected it to set the highest standards of morality, as an example to all. She attacked its Wednesday Play, the growth of late-night satire, slipping standards of language, and what she saw as increasing freedom of material and lowering of production standards. Nothing missed her beady eye. The highly popular Till Death Us Do Part she considered "entirely subversive to our whole way of life" for its portrayal of a white, racist in the character of Alf Garnet.
Setting Standards, Fighting Battles
Sometimes she was not content with writing letters and having meetings. In 1974 she started legal proceedings to attempt to stop the showing of the film Blow-Out (in which four men decide to eat themselves to death in the company of prostitutes). She failed, but not before persuading many people that she was right (although most critics thought the film should have been banned for its dullness…)
Other battles she fought included one famous, and highly successful, case against Gay News for its publishing of a poem about a homosexual soldier's love for Jesus at his crucifixion. Editor Denis Lemon was given a 9-month suspended jail sentence and was fined £500. The paper was fined £1,000 to which were added £10,000 in costs. They appealed unsuccessfully, although two other papers published the poem in protest against what they considered censorship.
She was never without her supporters, even though many of them occasionally felt that she went too far. Certainly her legacy is still felt in such bodies as the Broadcasting Standards Council (which she influenced very strongly). The first chairman of that body said in 1988 that she should take much of the credit for ensuring that "the public view was always taken into account". She received many accolades during her lifetime, notably her CBE in 1980, and public thanks from the likes of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom praised her for her moral courage.
Once it was accepted that she would complain, many in the media started asking her opinion on matters before they went to press or production. Despite this, she became a figure of fun to many, who attacked her both in the media and physically. She was several times pelted with eggs, stink bombs and pies. Possibly the final indignity, however, was the successful radio and TV comedy show The Mary Whitehouse Experience, which became something of a thorn in her flesh.
But all things come to an end. She fractured a vertebra in 1988, which caused her to slow down not one iota (she gave up gardening, her favourite hobby). She finally retired in 1994, although would occasionally venture from the safety of her nursing home to vent her spleen on some issue or other (again, usually the BBC). She finally died on 23rd November, 2001 after a long illness.
Despite all of her attacks and her high moral stance, she claimed not to be a prude. She went as far as to write a book entitled Whatever Happened to Sex in which she railed not against sex per se but rather against its explotation.
Did she have a point? Was she correct? That is beyond the scope of my discussion here. All I can say is that she raised issues in public which many people worried about in private - the influence of the media on a society. She will long be remembered as a woman who worked hard to make her feelings known, fought to have her say, and refused to lie down and be quiet.