Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: From the right to free expression to a duty to offend

One is required to deride Mary Whitehouse. But if no watch is kept, society ends up depraved
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Settle down with a cup of cocoa on Wednesday and watch a BBC film about Mary Whitehouse, the woman who railed against art, drama, popular culture, TV sex, spontaneity, equality, homosexuality, joy and freedom.

The unwanted kiss of that spidery woman was venomous, and she sometimes incapacitated those caught in crocheted webs of home-spun virtue. She was a fundamentalist Christian, a right-winger, a philistine little Englander and a Thatcherite. She even attacked Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home, an exposé of poverty and homelessness which roused the nation's conscience. She used the courts to exert control over the media and art. Geoffrey Robertson QC describes her as "tough, feisty, vainglorious ..." and "unscrupulous" in exploiting the weaknesses of those she took on.

Progressives are expected, indeed required, to deride and detest the old crone, and I duly do so here. But I also sense a weakening of the old certainty that we were absolutely right and that she was a wholly malevolent force. The new film, Filth, is, according to Robertson, "an amusing reminder of that age when 'you've got to admit Mrs Whitehouse is right about some things' briefly entered the language."

Have I got news for him. In liberal circles today, that same sentiment is expressed, and without embarrassment. Julie Walters, who plays Mrs W in the drama, is one of the self-doubters: "I think we should have understood her better. She did have a point ... much as I support freedom of expression, I believe children should be protected from things they are not emotionally equipped to deal with. And it was Mary Whitehouse who first campaigned against child pornography."

I would go further. It isn't only the welfare of children we should be concerned about in this age of frenetic media and internet output when anything goes, and talk of regulation is either a big yawn or a big laugh.

We debated the Whitehouse legacy on Radio 3's Nightwaves, to be broadcast tonight. On the panel were myself, Fay Weldon, the lawyer Anthony Julius and Chris Dunkley, the TV and radio critic. Dunkley, like Robertson, sees Whitehouse as Beelzebub in drag, an enemy of the people. For him nothing is off-limits. If we don't like what is shown on TV and stage, what is written, what is spoken, we can choose to avoid the offensive material. That is the only legitimate and civilised response. Anything else is "censorship". Cry "fire" falsely in a crowded theatre? That's OK too by him, he says, thus exposing his own fundamentalism.

Political censorship is never acceptable; in the arts, any moves by interest groups to silence practitioners must always be resisted. Men and women are today tortured and murdered for exercising free expression. But, if there is no watch kept on the products that make popular culture, if anything goes, society ends up depraved and unsafe.

Am I to infer that for Dunkley and others who share his faith – like the Rwandan DJs who, between discs, called, in rap, for the massacre of Tutsis – were merely exercising their freedom to broadcast? That Jade and her obnoxious housemates in Big Brother should not have been castigated for racist insults meted out to Shilpa Shetty? That the extreme libertarianism of British society is a triumph of good over evil?

Barbarism spreads in the public space – coarseness, cruelty, inhumanity and daily degradation passing for entertainment. Alan Sugar and Gordon Ramsay become heroes of bad times; gross reality TV is our gift to future generations. No area of life is too intimate and private, too precious to be kept from inquisitive eyes. Davina McCall, asking for inmates for Big Brother, said brightly: "You too can be humiliated on national TV," and thousands rushed to take up the invitation.

The right to free expression has turned into a duty to offend, and the word "responsibility" is now as dead as Mrs Whitehouse. Worse, the makers of violent and extreme behaviour programmes breezily deny that their work ever causes changes in actual behaviour and values. They are merely storytellers. Sorry, I am a simple soul; I see a live connection between "slappers" on the unzipped programmes and the comatose lasses outside pubs, between the glamourised violence in programmes and street killings and rape, between trendy media discourtesy and the everyday brutality of British life.

Those who still piss cheerfully on Whitehouse's grave should admit the stench they make now offends their own nostrils. Because she hated permissiveness, they showed her by kicking away all self-restraint and ensured they were never again called to justify what they do. No one is more intolerant of dissent than the prophets of free speech. Whitehouse dared to take them on and, even though I find many of her views utterly objectionable, she was right to do so and right too to warn of the chaos and bedlam to come.