Maria Kerigan: First secretary of the National Viewers and Listeners’ Association

Harry Ward
Saturday 22 May 2010 00:00 BST

The campaigner Maria Kerigan was one of the first people who volunteered to work for Mary Whitehouse's National Viewers and Listeners' Association. She became its national secretary during one of the most important periods in the history of broadcasting.

Born in Walkden, Lancashire, near Leigh, where her uncle John Tinker later became the Labour MP, Kerigan lived for some years with her grandparents after her father's lungs were damaged by mustard gas in the First World War. She was 14, and her sister Gertrude 11, when her mother died. She won a scholarship to Mount St Joseph Grammar School in Bolton and attended Manchester University from 1933, reading English and becoming the head of St Edmund's Elementary School in Little Hulton at the age of 26.

She moved to London with her husband Carl in 1953 and she became head of English at the Cardinal Griffin School in Poplar. There she developed her interest in drama, and later broadcasting, teaching English and drama with actors such as Bill Everett. Among her pupils was the future EastEnders actor and MEP Michael Cashman.

What had struck Kerigan about television was that violent scenes could arrive in the home without prior warning. She felt that television had the potential to enlighten but also to undermine the education she was striving to provide in one of the poorest parts of London. So she volunteered for Mary Whitehouse's new National and Viewers and Listeners' Association.

Kerigan was the Association's first national secretary in 1970, sharing platforms with Whitehouse as they toured the country speaking to schools and at other public engagements. However, her approach to censorship and broadcasting standards was far more complex than Whitehouse's clear moralistic standpoint.

The 1970s were a testing ground for production standards, with films such as Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange pushing the limits of the British Board of Film Censors. Kubrick later withdrew the film from public showings; he wanted it to repel violence in the way his earlier Paths of Glory had done.

Whitehouse never fully understood or indeed properly exploited Kubrick's self-censorship. However Kerigan, while no supporter of Kubrick's most controversial work was, unlike Whitehouse, careful to differentiate between a film depicting violence for its own sake and a film where the on-screen violence could be contextualised or even justified. Where Whitehouse's approach was "absolute", Kerigan approached censorship from the perspective of information-provision, and the film's appropriateness for its intended audience. The Godfather, which she saw in 1972 by accident when her Catholic altar society misunderstood the film's name, became her favourite film; she felt that the scenes of violence were justified by the plot.

Their very different views of The Godfather may have been the first sign of the difference between the practical nature of Kerigan's approach with the more (some would say) dogmatic views demonstrated by Whitehouse. While Whitehouse was on television and radio making the moral case for taste and decency, as national secretary Kerigan quietly and effectively made the case for greater provision of information about what to expect from a film, TV or radio production.

That said, in 1982 Kerigan did assist Whitehouse in the failed prosecution of Michael Bogdanov, director of the National Theatre, following the production of Howard Brenton's controversial play The Romans in Britain. Legal technicalities enabled a private prosecution for obscenity, but the trial at the Old Bailey collapsed when details of what could and could not have been seen by the only witness for the prosecution from his particularly cheap seat were revealed. (Neither Whitehouse or Kerigan saw the play). None the less, the case did set legal precedent, and it was referred to when the BBC broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera uncut in 2005. The prosecution of productions considered blasphemous or obscene continues to remain a possibility as a result of this case.

What would have concerned Kerigan most in her later years about Springer was not so much its content but whether or not it was shown post-watershed and what information was provided to the potential viewer. It is a measure of the success of the Association, and its successor, MediaWatch UK, that a great deal was provided about the broadcast.

Kerigan's pragmatism, as opposed to Whitehouse's absolutism, may have produced an unspoken tension between the two, and they parted company shortly after the Romans trial. Although there was no falling-out, and the two remained in contact, Whitehouse omitted any mention of Kerigan in her autobiography despite her 13 years of dedicated work.

But perhaps Kerigan had a greater impact. Today, films are often edited by the producers themselves to achieve a particular rating rather than to adhere to any moral code. The British Board of Film Classification has a primary role to inform potential viewers or their guardians, and provides information about films. And while British television is censored less than its US counterpart (with the notable exception of HBO), British viewers receive more information about a broadcast than in any other country. Kerigan's quiet and pragmatic approach, based on education and the provision of information rather than censorship and enforced morality, is perhaps her enduring legacy.

Maria Cecily Kerigan, teacher and broadcasting standards campaigner: born Walkden, Lancashire 2 November 1914; married 1941 Carl Kerigan (died 1998; two daughters, two sons); died Alcester, Warwickshire 6 February 2010.

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