THE Telegraph’s arts correspondent Ben Lawrence says that unlike now, when social media is dominated by those trying to police other people’s words, in the 1960s ‘obscenity was the enemy and it was our morals, not our choice of words, which were considered in grave danger’.
To the fore in the battle against the ‘permissive society’ was the late Mary Whitehouse. According to Lawrence, her ‘Clean-Up TV campaign vowed to preserve the nation’s morals and objected to everything the gogglebox had to offer – profanities, violence and, of course, nudity’. However, he says, ‘we shouldn’t laugh at people like Whitehouse. Their moral crusades may seem cranky now, but there was a strong sense of purpose to their guardianship. They may have proved a threat to artistic freedom of expression, but they also offered a kind of alternative way of living which today’s finger-pointers could learn from – the deeply religious Whitehouse wanted us to live better lives’.
Neither can one imagine Mrs Whitehouse, complaining about the BBC giving offence, melting like a modern-day ‘snowflake’ even when she was treated as public enemy number one by them and their progressive allies in the ‘entertainment’ industry – an inadvertent compliment to the effectiveness of her campaign. Moreover, Ben Lawrence notes that she ‘wasn’t an Establishment figure; she was, in a sense, an outsider; a housewife from Essex who was sneered at by a liberal elite (particularly when the BBC was under the stewardship of director-general Hugh Carleton Greene, with whom she had countless battles). The Corporation assumed a sort of intellectual high ground (sound familiar?); Whitehouse, to her credit, saw it as her duty to constantly challenge that.’
This is an important point, although Mrs Whitehouse did not object to everything on television: she praised its more elevating offerings, but feared that its barrel-scrapings, although exceptions, would lower the bar by lowering expectations and lowering morals. In this she has proved to be correct. Furthermore, she deserves credit for being the moving force behind making child pornography illegal; we now take this for granted, but she provided the legal foundation for later campaigners against the corruption of children to build their case. However, those in government might not thank her for it, as campaigners now propose to take ministers to court for failing to carry out their pledge legally to mandate age verification measures on websites, thus preventing children from watching pornography online.
As Laura Perrins wrote in TCW earlier this year, Mrs Whitehouse was a prophet; far from a pathetic, out-of-touch figure, she really was a threat to the liberal establishment – which does not wish us to ‘live better lives’ and is not so liberal when it comes to facing opposition to their debased offerings. Stronger and more confident in their power than ever, they may not join in the sentiment of the rest of the ‘outsiders’: ‘Come back, Mrs Whitehouse – all is forgiven’.