For nearly forty year Mary Whitehouse was a household name who evoked both enthusiastic support as well as prejudiced hostility. To some she was the guardian of family values and to other a self-appointed busy body. For many she is the prophet who warned that portrayals of violence would make society more violent but she has also been ridiculed as puritanical and out of touch.
Mary Whitehouse was a teacher and she became aware of the profound effect television was having on the moral values of the girls in her care, undermining family life, social cohesion and attacking Christian values
Motivated by a profound Christian faith, Mary Whitehouse believed that something must be done about the damaging influence of the media. The ‘Clean Up TV Campaign’ was launched in 1963 and a nation-wide petition organized. Half a million signatures were presented to the Governors of the BBC but programming did not improve as a result.
At a packed meeting in the Birmingham Town Hall on the 5 May 1964, she said, “If violence is shown as normal on the television screen it will help to create a violent society”. The next day, The Times reporting on the meeting said: “About 2,000 supporters of a campaign to ‘clean up’ BBC television attended a meeting which decided to ask the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh for their support.”
They were asked to give “encouragement and support to our efforts to bring about a radical change in the policy of entertainers in general and the Governors of the BBC in particular. In view of the terrifying increase in promiscuity and its attendant horrors we are desperately anxious to banish from our homes and theatres those who seek to demoralize and corrupt our young people.”
Mary Whitehouse appealed to sympathizers to ask their parliamentary candidates to come right out into the open with their views on the campaign. The Times report concluded: “Perhaps never in the history of the Birmingham Town Hall has such a successful meeting been sponsored by such a flimsy organization”.
The first ‘Clean Up TV Campaign’ newsletter on the 15 May 1964 said: “What a wonderful experience the evening of the 5 May was! The sight of the packed hall and the singing of the National Anthem were unforgettable. Everyone must have been tremendously heartened, and it will have given great satisfaction to those who worked so hard and came so far to register their support.
Delegations came from all over the Midlands and from as far away as Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, London, Devon and Mid-Wales. There were many personal messages of support that were backed by the 120,000 signatures already appended to the Manifesto. There is also a suggestion for a kind of “Consumers’ Council” which would protect not only the viewing public, but the playwrights and artistes who are struggling to produce better plays.”
The National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association – now known as Mediawatch-UK – was founded in 1965 as a response to the huge, and on-going, public support for the campaign.
Although not everyone agreed with her, Mary Whitehouse was widely respected for her courage, sincerity and transparent honesty. She met regularly with politicians, various secretaries of State and broadcasters in an effort to secure good entertainment that would benefit society as a whole rather than simply the narrow interests of programme makers and film producers.
In 1977 Lord Annan, speaking in a House of Lords debate on the Future of Broadcasting paid this tribute: “I have very considerable respect for Mrs Whitehouse. It is common, among both the intelligentsia and the broadcasters, to sneer at her. Let no one forget that on the evidence which our Committee received she speaks for millions, and the force with which she speaks is matched by her personal modesty and absence of rancour. Our Committee judged that she, and others of course, had made out a case which the broadcasters had not answered”.
Mary Whitehouse made many campaign trips around the world to address meetings and conferences arranged to discuss the effects of the media on their societies and to advise on appropriate action. She debated at universities all over the United Kingdom, not always winning, but ensuring lively and provocative discussions among the students. She appeared on many television and radio programmes when discussion ranged over many moral and social issues. She was the subject of major production ‘Person to Person’ on BBC TV in 1979.
Mary Whitehouse wrote six books and these books provide an insight not only into the compassionate and caring person who wrote them but also into the revolutionary changes that were being foisted on an unsuspecting society. In 1980 she was awarded the CBE, which she felt gave the cause official recognition.
In the years before she died Mary Whitehouse suffered agonizing and debilitating pain caused by a fracture to her spine while gardening. She always maintained an interest in the work and her determination that children should be free from exploitation and allowed to grow and mature at their own rate rather than have maturity – and a lot more besides – imposed by others, remained undimmed.
Mary Whitehouse CBE died in November 2001. Part of her continuing legacy is the work of Mediawatch-UK
In 2004 Roy Hattersley wrote “Forty years ago I dismissed Mary Whitehouse as a bad joke. Foolishly, I believed that broadcasters, acting with little or no restraint, would produce an ever-improving quality of programme. The reverse has happened. One of the hard facts of television’s decline – a painful fact to swallow for unapologetic libertarians – is that liberty, far from producing an improvement in quality, has produced a continual deterioration in standards.”
After decades of battling against her views, Dame Joan Bakewell has also conceded that Mary Whitehouse may have been right all along. In a remarkable U-turn, Dame Joan has suggested the results of sexual liberation in the 1960s may not have had a positive effect for a later generation.
Writing in The Radio Times she said: “The liberal mood back in the ’60s was that sex was pleasurable and wholesome and shouldn’t be seen as dirty and wicked.
“The Pill allowed women to make choices for themselves. Of course, that meant the risk of making the wrong choice. But we all hoped girls would grow to handle the new freedoms wisely.
“Then everything came to be about money – so now sex is about money, too. Why else sexualise the clothes of little girls, run TV channels of naked wives, have sex magazines edging out the serious stuff on newsagents’ shelves?
“It’s money that’s corrupted us and women are being used and are even collaborating. I never thought I would hear myself say as much, but I’m with Mrs Whitehouse on this one.”