So has the Mary Whitehouse experience been worth it?: Simon Midgley explores the legacy of the campaigner, who is retiring at the age of 83

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY after 30 years of campaigning against the permissive society and moral turpitude of the BBC Mary Whitehouse stepped down as president of the National Viewers' And Listeners' Association. Bowing to the depredations of old age and frail health, the grandmother, aged 83, has decided to spend more time with her family.

A tireless - some would say tiresome - busybody, she has spent the last three decades attacking sex and violence in film, television, theatre, literature and the arts. That Was the Week that Was, A Clockwork Orange, Up the Junction, Blow Up, Gay News, Oz magazine, Till Death Us Do Part, The Benny Hill Show, Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain, Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, EastEnders - the list of targets is long.

But what difference has she made? Today there is more explicit sex, graphic violence and bad language on television, in cinema films, magazines and novels than there ever was in the Swinging Sixties. So have all her efforts been in vain? Not quite, she says.

Her lifelong insistence that violent scenes on the big and small screen lead to copycat violence in real life has gained credence from the findings of a recent, now controversial, report by Professor Elizabeth Newson suggesting there may well be links between acts of video violence and the behaviour of young people.

On Friday she was recovering from a fractured spine at her home in the village of Ardleigh, on the fringe of Constable country in Essex. As she sat in her chair, Mrs Whitehouse pontificated: 'We have been saying for 30 years . . . and it's plain common sense, children copy what they see, this is how they learn. It's a basic human truth. Because it's shown on television then it comes with the approval of the transmitter and of the parents who switch on. There has been so much sheer unreality transmitted on television in the name of reality that it really is more than time that just about everybody woke up on this.

'If you constantly portray violence as normal on TV you will help to create a violent society. Thirty years ago we were laughed to scorn but now it is something which has been very widely accepted.'

She also claimed credit for helping to create laws which ban the use of children in the production of pornography, forbid the publication of explicit covers on pornographic magazines and require that videos including sex or violence must now be classified.

At the association's annual convention in London yesterday, Mrs Whitehouse said the NVLA's efforts had led to the establishment of the Broadcasting Standards Council, which monitors television on matters of decency and taste, and had also led to bringing broadcasting within the remit of the Obscene Publications Act from which it was originally excluded. She plans to devote her retirement to campaigning for more effective obscenity laws.

Others disagree on her legacy. Broadcaster Ned Sherrin, who appeared on That Was the Week that Was, is quite clear. 'If she had been ignored for the last 30 years the world would have been a better place.' Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, says: 'I don't think she has had any effect at all. She never sees things in context. She will see something in an exploitation video and condemn it in the same breath as she will condemn a Dennis Potter classic.

'I respect her fortitude in fighting the battles over the years, trying to get her point of view across, but it is a point of view which would have totally destroyed British television if it had become the set of values by which we had commissioned programmes.'

Lord Rees-Mogg, founder chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council, says she was 'on the whole a force for the good, an important woman'.

In the 1960s when Sir Hugh Greene, as director general of the BBC, was rather aggressively pushing forward the barriers of permissiveness on what could be shown on TV, she was the first person who raised the banner of counter-attack.

Subsequent attempts by broadcasters to reduce the amount of violence shown on television and to police the nine o'clock sex and violence watershed on television can be chalked up to her, he said.

Sir David Attenborough, controller of BBC2 1965-68, and director of programmes for both BBC1 and 2, 1969-72, says that Mrs Whitehouse clearly did have an influence on broadcasters and on what was shown on television. 'Extreme and radical views at one end of the spectrum always change where the middle of the spectrum is and the fact that she was fairly severe in her views meant that you certainly bore them in mind . . . if she had not been there, there might have been more licence.

'You had to think what you would do if you met her. How you would explain yourself. I think she represented a body of opinion in this country which was worthy and serious and not flippant, and it behoved us to pay attention to what she said.'

Melvyn Bragg, broadcaster and author of A Time to Dance, is much less forgiving. 'There's a confusion about Mary Whitehouse. She's such a jolly, English, mumsy, eccentric figure that when you meet her and when you hear her there's a definite likeability.'

By expressing alarm at some of the things that were going on in television in the 1960s, he adds, she was tapping into a serious strain of vox populi. However, by 'doing it in the way she did, she has helped to make us the most regulated and censored small screen culture in the free world'.

He says that she frequently talked about things she had not seen, often in strident terms which did not bear examination, which was 'unforgivable'.

'I also think she fell foul of and exacerbated what I see as a British disease which is when in doubt about society blame television, don't blame poverty, don't blame the disintegration of the family, don't blame all the other things, blame television. It's sloppy and completely inadequate thinking.

'I am sure she was sincere,' but at the end of the day, he says, 'she threw quite a bit of heat and very little light.'

Steve Barnett, who teaches media policy at Goldsmiths' College, says that the one grave moral injustice which Mrs Whitehouse has bequeathed to the world is the linking of sex and violence.

'She was always known as the sex and violence campaigner and I have never, never been able to understand how it is that a campaigning organisation got away with linking a series of images or acts in which people do harm to each other and a series of images or acts in which people give great pleasure to each other. From the very beginning she succeeded in linking them together as if they were of

equal evil and that is what I find most objectionable.'

So farewell then Mary Whitehouse. Or is it just au revoir? The NVLA has decided that no one will replace her as president and that she will be known from henceforth as Founder and President Emeritus. This may well be a recognition that in the public mind the NVLA is Mary Whitehouse and without her there is a real danger of it just withering on the vine. Yesterday Mrs Whitehouse vowed to campaign for a tougher obscenity law.

'The fact that I am retiring as president does not mean that I am backing away from the fight to which I committed myself all those years ago.

'By simplifying my commitments I shall, hopefully, be able to concentrate on what is arguably the biggest and most important battle of them all,' she told delegates.

She also released the text of a letter she had sent to Channel 4 chief executive Michael Grade in which she criticised his recent screening of the Robert De Niro film Goodfellas.

It was 'one of the most obscene and blasphemous films ever screened in Britain' she alleged in a complaint about its explicit violence. Films like it served to 'desensitise us all and make us that much less prepared to respond positively to the dangers in which others - including children - exist'.

Her retirement may, in truth, be still some way off yet.

(Photograph omitted)

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