Mary Whitehouse

From Academic Kids

Mary Whitehouse (June 13, 1910November 23, 2001) was a British campaigner for traditional morals and decency, particularly in television and radio. She was founder and first president of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association.

Contents

Early life

Mary Whitehouse was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire on June 13, 1910 and was educated at a grammar school in Chester. She went on to do teacher-training at the county college, specialising in art. Her first teaching job was in Wednesfield, Staffordshire. She joined the Oxford Movement (later Moral Rearmament) in the 1930s. At MRA meetings she met Ernest Whitehouse, and they married in 1940.

While a teacher at Madeley school in Shropshire she became concerned at what she perceived as the declining moral standards in Britain, of the media, and especially of the BBC.

Clean Up TV

Mary Whitehouse began her campaigning in 1963 and among her first targets was Sir Hugh Carleton Greene; she claimed the director-general of the BBC was "more than anybody else... responsible for the moral collapse in this country". Greene ignored her concerns and from 1964 she began to gather wider support for her campaign; at her first public meeting in Birmingham over 3,000 people attended and the Clean Up TV Campaign was created. The National Viewers' and Listeners' Association was also formed in 1964, and in 1965 she obtained a total of 5 million signatures on her Clean Up TV petition, a record for the UK. When Greene left the BBC in 1969 Whitehouse was quick to claim credit for his departure; other sources pointed to a more political struggle between the BBC and Harold Wilson, then prime minister.

Private prosecutions

In addition to her campaigns regarding television Mrs Whitehouse brought a number of notable legal actions, including a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against Gay News in 1977. It was the first time the offence had been used since 1922 when the Old Bailey sentenced John W Gott to nine months' hard labour for blasphemy. The private prosecution concerned the poem The Love That Dares to Speak its Name by James Kirkup, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. It resulted in the editor of Gay News, Denis Lemon, being given a nine-month suspended jail sentence, and being told by the judge he had come close to serving it.

She also pursued a private prosecution against Michael Bogdanov, the director of a National Theatre production of Howard Brenton's The Romans In Britain, under a sexual offences act for the offence of "procuring an act of gross indecency" — an offence aimed at homosexual prostitutes and their pimps. The play had a scene involving (simulated) anal sex between two characters. Whitehouse withdrew from the prosecution and the proceedings were terminated by a nolle prosequi procedure.

Her complaints about Stanley Kubrick's film version of A Clockwork Orange may have contributed to the director's personal decision to forbid the film to be shown in Britain. From 1972 she campaigned for public decency and her efforts played a part in the passage of Protection of Children Act 1978, the Indecent Displays Act (1981) concerning sex shops and in 1984 she shared the great outrage in the UK at "video nasties", that led to the Video Recordings Act of that year. Her campaigns helped bring an end to Channel 4's "red triangle" series of films; claimed by Channel 4 to be intended to warn viewers of material liable to cause offence, the broadcasting of these films had also received criticism from non-supporters of Whitehouse. She also had a role in the 1990 extension of the Broadcasting Act and the establishment of the Broadcasting Standards Council.

Backlash

Some of her opponents claimed that she had an ability to be offended by almost anything, pointing to her complaints about the use of the word "bloody", her concerns about the T.V. character Alf Garnett, Doctor Who or the violence in Tom and Jerry cartoons. Of Four Weddings and a Funeral, she famously said "I haven't seen it, of course, but I've heard that the opening three minutes contains a stream of four letter obscenities", after which there were claims that she tended to take any sexualised activity on television or in the theatre as an affront. Her own favourite programmes were "Dixon of Dock Green", "Neighbours" and coverage of Snooker.

Mrs. Whitehouse became a target for mockery and caricature. One publisher of pornographic magazines named a magazine Whitehouse, apparently in an attempt to annoy her (this magazine's website is the source of occasional shock and confusion to those searching for the official White House web site). British "noise" band Whitehouse also named themselves after her, in mocking tribute, and she is mentioned by name in the song Pigs (Three Different Ones) on the 1977 Pink Floyd album Animals. There was also a BBC TV and Radio comedy series called The Mary Whitehouse Experience. She tried unsuccessfully to get her name removed from the title.

Base of support

In spite of this, Mary Whitehouse still had a deep base of support; for much of the 1960s and 1970s she had more than 250 speaking engagements every year and in 1980 she was honoured with a CBE.

Retirement

Whitehouse retired as president of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association in 1994; the Association was renamed Mediawatch in 2001 and the current president is John Beyer. The organisation had about 150,000 members at its peak; current membership is almost 40,000.

Illness and death

In the 1990s her activity was reduced by illness and a fall which damaged her spine in 1997. Her husband died in July 2000. She died in a nursing home in Colchester on November 23, 2001.

References

  • Geoffrey Robertson: The Justice Game, 1999, Random House UK. A memoir of a prominent barrister who, among other historic trials, successfully defended several of Whitehouse's targets in her private prosecutions.

See also

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