The Woman Who Knew Best

One of the end of year media traditions we've recently observed is the annual obituary list. Featuring in 2001 was 91-year-old Mary Whitehouse, a woman much less well-known at the time of her demise than she was in her prime. But contrary Mary had a notable influence on the rather strange moral climate in which we now live.

Whitehouse was one of the founders of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, Little England's reaction to broadcast material that swung or grooved in the early 1960's. Until that time a Wolverhampton housewife and teacher with a background in the conservative Oxford Group, Whitehouse grew into a strident figurehead, attacking the diet of "homosexuality, prostitution and sexual intercourse" that apparently was the staple of British TV.

Her conflation of the three elements in the above quote-thematically linked, but unclearly, and with a moral equivalence given to very different concepts-tells younger readers virtually everything about Whitehouse. Her scattergun attacks targeted the highly important and the utterly trivial: Dennis Potter and The Man From Uncle. She couldn't see the difference.

Having claimed the scalp of BBC Director General and longtime opponent Hugh Carlton Greene, she widened her strategy in later years to launch a series of prosecutions against films (the 1973 Blow Out) and theatre (The Romans in Britain). Some of these ended in expensive defeats, but she succeeded against the magazine Gay News, which was found to have committed blasphemous libel (Whitehouse never had anything personal against gays, but thought they needed "help and treatment").

She was remarkably effective, too, in wider areas of legislation, influencing the powerful Tory administrations of the 1980's. Among her triumphs were the introduction of the Video Recordings Act (1984), the first piece of legally-imposed film censorship, intended to deal with "video nasties" (a phrase she coined), and the establishment of the Broadcasting Standards Council in 1988 (the BSC is the body which ensures British TV is sufficiently censored. There is no equivalent body to challenge the excision of material).

Whitehouse's importance resides in the fact that she was a powerful leader for cultural conservatives throughout both the great period of British liberalism and the subsequent era of reaction. Mediawatch UK, the NVLA's successors, proudly display a photo of her standing by Mrs Thatcher in 1984 (no, seriously), which is also significant. Maggie T and Mary W both exemplify the spirit of that time, the rise of lower-middle-class disgust with so-called-intellectuals-and-experts which is a potent current in Middle England. Just as Thatcher took a clubbable, aristocratic Tory Party (think Alec Douglas-Home) and made it into a chippy populist movement for estate agents and middle managers, so Mary shook up the media and censorship networks, historically controlled by Oxbridge graduates (the BBC) and retired colonels or social workers (the British Board of Film Censors), by subjecting them to the full subaltern wrath of the Daily Mail mindset.

After her retirement in 1994, Whitehouse had no real successor. Mediawatch ploughs the same furrow, but John C. Beyer, its director, is not exactly a national figure. The Movement for Christian Democracy and its high profile member David Alton MP occupy similar ground but seem to have concluded that pressure to censor is more effective when applied quietly.

Whitehouse's most lasting legacy is still very much with us. As late as 1997 Tony Blair was offering to meet the "retired" campaigner. The Vicar of St Albion has never made any secret of using the Thatcher template to cement his popularity; we may be pretty sure from which direction some of his ostentatious morality comes, too.

© Mike Morris 2002

Dewe Mathews, Tom. Censored. London, 1994.
Forbidden Cinema, supplement to Sight & Sound, 1995.
Scapegoat no. 1, 1995.
Daily Telegraph obituary, Nov. 2001. Quoted by The Melon Farmers (
Guardian Online ( 24 Nov. 2001, obituary and news pages.
Mediawatch UK (