A funny, dirty little war

Mary Whitehouse believed she could rid our screens of violence and filth. Forty years on, she must be turning in her grave, says Ed Waller
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It is exactly 40 years tomorrow since the crowds flocked in their thousands to Birmingham Town Hall to hear Mary Whitehouse pronounce on the dangers posed by the television set to British society. "If violence is shown as normal on the television screen it will help to create a violent society," she warned her followers.

Her speech triggered a new social movement: the Clean-Up TV Campaign and the members thought at the time that their force of feeling could change the direction of the British media. In a letter to her devotees after her Birmingham address, Whitehouse wrote: "What a wonderful experience the evening was! The sight of the packed hall of 2,000 people and the singing of the National Anthem was unforgettable."

But what has become of this popular uprising? This Saturday, the remnants of the Clean-Up TV campaign, under its most recent incarnation Mediawatch UK, will gather at Birmingham Town Hall once again. Not, this time, in the building but outside on the steps, by the scaffolding. "We wanted to have the meeting in Birmingham Town Hall but it's being renovated so we're doing it on the steps outside," says John Beyer, the head of Mediawatch UK. "We'll have some readings of Mary's speeches, but I have no idea how many will turn up. All the scaffolding and construction work won't actually be a distraction, when you remember that Mary was also a builder trying to build a better society."

For over 30 years Whitehouse was a household name, earning support and hostility in equal measure as she railed against the "poison being poured into millions of homes through television". Driven by Christian values, she campaigned against sex and violence in the media, and helped to create the Broadcasting Standards Council, now merged into Ofcom. But for all their efforts the Whitehouse campaigners never got the pristine screens they longed for. Today a broadcaster can escape uncensured for allowing Johnny "Rotten" Lydon to brand viewers as "fucking cunts". Top of the Pops is still around but now hosts performances which the new watchdog describes as resembling the atmosphere of a "bondage club".

Beyer looks back misty-eyed on those so-called Swinging Sixties and claims that "there was much more of a consensus in those days". Thinking back to that night in Birmingham, he recalls that: "Mary tapped into people's reaction to the values that were being imposed on us by things like The Wednesday Play on the BBC."

In its heyday Mediawatch UK had more than 20,000 adherents. Now, however, there are only about 5,000 members and most of these, Beyer admits, are dormant members. "In common with all the political parties, we're finding that people simply don't join things these days," he says. Mediawatch UK's last annual report warned that for every member the organisation manages to recruit, it is losing two existing members and it could soon cease to be viable.

And if they thought things could not get any worse after the Johnny Rotten episode, they obviously haven't been watching Channel 4's FilmFour channel.

What Lydon took nine days to do, a promotion manages nine times in under 90 seconds. We're talking nine c-words, no less that 20 f-words, plus others from lower down the pecking order, all uttered by mainstream celebrities such as Davina McCall, Rory Bremner and Jon Snow. It's currently airing on FilmFour and nearly made it into cinemas but was vetoed at the last minute by the Cinema Advertising Association (CAA). "We found that most people found it simply amusing rather than offensive," says Channel 4's head of marketing, Bill Griffin. "The CAA didn't share that view. I don't blame them but we had to give it a go."

The feeling one receives from media watchdogs is that they are fighting a losing battle against swearing. "It's one of the most difficult issues to track," the British Board of Film Classification's chief executive, Robin Duval, says. "A single use of the word 'fuck' is enough to bump a film up from PG to 12A, but to people outside the English-language world, that's quite bizarre." He says one of the main thrusts of the BBFC's upcoming public survey is whether such a word as the f-word is now acceptable in front of children. "Times change," he concedes. "However, the c-word remains unique and I don't think people are getting more relaxed about that." Ofcom, also conducting its own public consultation this year, nonetheless forgave ITV over Lydon's recent outburst, a move that Beyer says sets a precedent for other broadcasters.

Whitehouse, a Wolverhampton schoolteacher, explained in her book Whatever Happened To Sex? that she was a happy family woman who had nothing against sex but was dismayed by its portrayal in the media. Certainly she did not just campaign against sex and violence. She took a particular objection to the racial humour in the sitcom 'Til Death Us Do Part. The programme has recently resurfaced on digital television.

There are few crumbs of comfort for Whitehouse supporters on today's screens. According to Duval, the public believes that "consensual sex between adults" is "OK" but he says "our rules on violent sexual scenes are now tougher than before". And the woman who sued Gay News for blasphemous libel in 1977 and took court action over a homosexual rape scene in The Romans In Britain, a play at the National Theatre, would have admired ITV's decision to axe gay sex scenes from the drama Footballers' Wives.

But after all the abuse that Ms Whitehouse endured during her 30 year battle against "blasphemy, bad language, violence and indecency", it is difficult to see what the Clean Up campaign achieved, other than briefly holding back the tide of change.

And now one of her old sparring partners, Michael Grade (the man the Daily Mail dubbed "pornographer-in-chief" when he was at Channel 4), has been named chairman of the BBC. "I think she had little or no effect on the content of television," Grade said after her death in 2001, "but she was a very sincere campaigner and she and I debated all over the land about the content of television. She was witty, she was a great debater, she was very courageous and she had a very sincere view but it was out of touch entirely with the real world."