A new documentary claims to be even-handed but can't quite manage it
Banned! is a new BBC documentary that dubs the 1960s teacher-cum-morality campaigner, Mary Whitehouse, “the original cancel culture warrior”. A “flawed but vindicated” woman is the headline. But was she a reactionary or a revolutionary? Was she right in her conviction that Britain was in a media-driven “moral decline”?
The documentary itself is odd. Fifty-five minutes of the hour-long film are allotted to pillorying Whitehouse for her views on LGBT rights, leaving precious little time to address whether she was really “vindicated” in the end.
Whitehouse was notorious for calling for the censorship of television programmes, films, and pornography. Banned! viewed these battles through Whitehouse’s life-long rivalry with Sir Hugh Green, director-general of the BBC for most of the Sixties.
Greene had opposed Whitehouse on the same grounds as Whitehouse opposed the BBC: that strict adherence to one kind of moral framework can lead to “a dangerous kind of censorship”. To the documentary’s credit, the BBC acknowledges Greene’s ridicule and no-platforming of Whitehouse as contradicting its own belief in people’s “right to know”. Notably, though, the documentary never terms Greene’s treatment of Whitehouse as “no-platforming” rather, it is replaced with the watered-down, more innocuous phrases like, “stopped her from appearing”. Sadly, the film’s moments of defence of Whitehouse never becomes more sophisticated than this.
At worst, Banned!’s occasional admiration for Whitehouse comes across as reluctant concession, particularly in attributing the sexual revolution to the abuses of consent later revealed in the #MeToo movement. While Greene was right to be concerned about censorship by omission, both he and the producers of Banned! failed to see that the BBC’s self-proclaimed right to be “ahead of public opinion” is, itself, a kind of censorship — a censorship by selectivity.
“If you really want to know what the public think the last thing you must do is accuse the public of being cranks”, said Whitehouse once. Perhaps earlier than most, she sensed that the BBC has long-harboured a contempt for anyone who isn’t, well, them.
What comes through in Banned! is the value of opposition. Whitehouse was not always right, but she was a ferocious fighter and campaigner. To quote another Mary — Wollstonecraft — “In the schools of adversity we learn knowledge as well as virtue”. In other words, it’s not easy to know what you stand for until someone says what they are against. If the crusades of Mary Whitehouse have any relevance today, it is that there is no medicine without sickness, and a dose of moral adversity may just be tonic to our present moral ambiguity.