The BBC’s faint praise for Mary Whitehouse
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.
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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.
I’ve seen only the first of the two programmes, and thought it fairly even-handed. It was startling to be reminded of how visibly porn-saturated we were in the 70s – now it’s far more prevalent of course, but less visible.
What is clear then (as now) is the extent to which the gap between what we now call the metropolitan elite and the rest was based on class. Mary W’s chief crime was being uppity petite bourgeoise and provincial.
‘Fifty-five minutes of the hour-long film are allotted to pillorying Whitehouse for her views on LGBT rights’. Not the episode I saw. Gays featured only tangentially, and transfolk not at all.
Indeed, we’ve only seen the first half of the program so far. How can we pass judgement at half time ?
I also thought this was a fairly well-balanced program (and I’m no great BBC fan).
I came away from this with some [limited] sympathy for Mary Whitehouse and certainly an appreciation of her media campaigning genius. It was certainly interesting to see how she started a sort of grass roots (whether “silent majority” or not) mobilisation which as the program pointed out was similar to Brexit and Trump. I think the program went wrong in stating that Whitehouse supporters and Brexit voters were essentially the same – while there is certainly a large overlap, things are not that simple. But the BBC never pass up an opportunity to try to smear Brexit.
However, I well remember the universal derision of her when I was at school in the 1970s and in many ways this was deserved. At one point she states “if that isn’t blasphemy, what is ?”. She fails to question whether a blasphemy law has any real meaning or place in modern society (I don’t think it does – and the law criminalising blasphemy was abolished in 2008). I can sympathise with her defence of a traditional culture and he right to be able to do so, but not with the denial of freedom or free speech to minorities that went along with it.
But – leaving the issues aside – as a pure campaigner, there’s a lot to admire and learn from.
I’d only say that it is only ‘smearing’ if you buy into the concept that there is something wrong or illegitimate about Mary Whitehouse, Brexit or both.
The connection might possibly be an intentional sneer (rather than smear) – by the producers but won’t have any adverse effect on anyone with sympathy for either cause.
…exactly the same people who derided the idea of blasphemy in respect of the Christian Faith that formed this country…are all too keen to see it re-instated in respect of another and more recently arrived Abrahamic belief. I well remember the row caused by Serrano’s “P!ss Christ”…would anybody even attempt a “P!ss Qu’ran” ?
Who are these people who deride the idea of a blasphemy law for Christianity but support it for Islam? Name names. Cite sources.
In fact, I’m going to go further and state this was an excellent program (so far) and far better than this article.
Any program that can make me see at least some value in what both Mary Whitehouse and Peter Tatchell did must be doing something right (I really didn’t expect to ever be saying anything positive about either of them). In fact, there was no rancour or bitterness expressed by any of those involved. Perhaps people were just more respectful and polite in those days. Or is it just much easier to hand out abuse on-line to people you don’t know and will never meet.
Between Whitehouse and Tatchell, we’ve arrived at a middle ground that most people can live with. In their way, they both contributed to finding this balance, even though they’ve both fallen short of what they wanted.
For me, this was a fine example of what public service broadcasting should be (but so rarely is).
I also thought it fair, especially in hinting that Mary W’s great enemy, Hugh Carleton Greene, was a deeply unattractive individual.
Hugh Greene reportedly possessed a grotesque nude portrait of MW with five or six (accounts differ) breasts at which he used to throw darts. Deeply unattractive, as you say, but also extremely odd.
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