It has become quite commonplace to review the concerns and goals, if not the work, of Mary Whitehouse and despondently say “she had a point”. Most people would take issue with this or that particular thing she did, but a great many would nonetheless say that, in general, she was right.
I will never be able to forgive Whitehouse for ensuring that The Omega Factor did not get a second season. She complained about various episodes and also about the fact that it was broadcast before the 9pm watershed. The BBC could simply have agreed to broadcast it after the watershed, but they must have reasoned that the programme itself was now a risky proposition given Whitehouse’s beady-eyed attentions, so they did not award it the second season that, going by the final episode and comments from actress Louise Jameson, was anticipated. Subjectively, The Omega Factor is one of my favourite TV dramas so of course I am biased but, objectively, it is such a unique production, surely most sensible people would agree that the annals of TV history are missing something with the absence of a second (or indeed third) season. Who knows what might have been, and now can never be. The window of opportunity was but a moment in time, that can never be recreated. How I wish Mary had relented on this one…
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But apart from that, I have a lot of agreement with her. I think she over-reacted to certain particular things but was correct about the general trend. Where I disagree with her about particulars, it is probably only because I am inured (by exposure) to material that was shocking to her (by novelty).
While she was correct about a mechanism by which violence and sex in the media degrade society, I think the mechanism is much less direct than she claimed. She seems to have believed, quite literally, that more violence in films would lead more people to commit more violence.
This, I am genuinely sorry to say, is a very literal and uneducated notion. While her heart was in the right place, her mind was perhaps not up to the job of articulating the concern properly. I do not say that with any smugness; any sense of superiority that I feel over her is purely intellectual, not moral. In fact I think it very likely that she was a better person than me - more responsible, more down-to-earth, more strong, and certainly more practical.
Unfortunately those qualities are not enough when you are trying to influence society, as Whitehouse was. What happened, I believe, was that she got so far, but then could only show herself up, or at least, provide her opponents with ammunition.
To claim that a teenager seeing violence on a TV screen is thereafter more likely to commit violence, is to make life very difficult for yourself. Your opponent need only demand empirical evidence of your claim and you will find yourself stranded. The moral intuition which led you to make such a pronouncement - and after all, it does seem to make sense! - will not get you through the debate. Let’s say you are able to cite some evidence, a study from an accredited expert… well, your opponent can say that it’s only one study, or they can take issue with the sample size, or some aspect of the methodology, or they can entirely ignore all of that and simply provide a counter study, or two counter studies, or even ten (this depends on how much funding they have, for paying researchers to dig this stuff up, or even to conduct the studies).
“Gratuitous violence” is rather like “pornography”: difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. “Seeing gratuitous violence in media will harm people” is similar: you can’t prove it, but you know it must be true. Every sensible person knows it.
Do we even need to argue the case? Apparently we do. I once made this same point about a different topic, much to my detriment: the topic of bestiality. We all know that it is wrong. The trouble is that, apart from (rather superfluous) appeals to the animal’s right to consent, we can’t really say why it’s wrong. We tend to think it so obviously wrong that we don’t expect anyone to waste our time asking us the question. But, in this age, people do waste our time, and their own, asking such questions. They ask it of numerous topics. “Why is necrophilia wrong, again? After all, the corpse doesn’t suffer. And what about incest between consenting siblings? And what about child porn where the children are CGI, so no actual children are harmed?”
After the loss of Christianity as an over-arching moral arbiter, we seem to spend a lot of our time puzzling over questions to which we instinctively know the answers. Those instinctive answers are the only ones that could ever do us any good (“this thing is wrong. Don’t do it”) yet we wonder about alternatives anyway, answers that would grant us license to do as we please.
As civilisation weakens and its protocols recede from our lives, we regress, not to the noble savage, but to the intelligent animal. This is a being which is selfish and instinctual but also inquisitive and feckless. Being an animal, it is governed by its instincts, but being intelligent, it has the inquisitiveness to stray from them, just for the sake of it. As a result, it is fascinated by its own whims, thinking them “right” because they are “natural”. In the real world, living by whim leads to disaster and failure, so the intelligent animal dreams of a world in which nothing is forbidden because no action has any real effect. This is a war against reality, but only civilisation can prevent the intelligent animal from waging it. As we become that being, as civilisation and the duty to uphold it become ever less interesting to us, we crave, in some sense, total nullity, total freedom from consequence and meaning - paradise for the intelligent animal. But at the same time, our moral centre tells us that this cannot work, that reality will surely intervene, that living meaninglessly is unhealthy; but our intelligence cannot explain that moral imperative, so cannot justify it, so chooses to ignore it. We dimly hear adulthood demanding better from us - but it is distant and muffled, so we tell ourselves we can ignore the call, at least for a while longer. (Lord, make us adults, but not just yet.)
So, in this whirlpool of nihilism, we delude ourselves about all sorts of matters, choosing answers which are easy and expedient over ones which would be onerous, and we demand impossible proof before we will admit that we are deluded.
Violence in media is one such “dilemma”. The intelligent animal, being inquisitive and feckless, wonders what it would be like to watch a woman’s face being destroyed, or a man’s limbs being removed while he protests helplessly, or a child being slowly submerged in acid, or any manner of other hellish things. We cannot prove that such media does us harm… but what good can it possibly do us? Why is it “good” to see the kinds of obscene (and nowadays very convincing) gore that one finds in slasher films, for example? Why would anyone object to living in a society that abhorred such material, a society in which such films simply did not exist? The only reasons I can think of are:
This would require limiting the freedom of expression of film-makers. Their creative vision should not be interfered with.
This would require limiting the freedom of choice of film viewers. Their consumer choice should not be interfered with.
Taken in isolation, these arguments are attractive. But of course, we live in a society, so nothing exists in isolation. If you allow film-makers to make such films, and viewers to view them… that will affect them in ways they might not foresee, and other people in ways they might not want, and society in ways that it, being an abstract entity, cannot protest.
But of course, what I have just said is airy-fairy. In an age of “rationality”, airy-fairy arguments don’t cut it. The midwit delights in “well ackchilly”-ing such arguments into the ground.
Take an intuitive, common sense argument like: “Even if seeing violence depicted casually does not affect the individual, it certainly coarsens society and culture.” This is obviously true. But one can imagine the smug replies:
Well, but what do you mean by “coarsen”? And what do you mean by “culture”? How does a coarse culture differ from an uncoarse culture, whatever that is? And why is a coarse culture worse than an uncoarse culture? And how “casual” does the treatment of violence have to be before it has these effects you claim? And what quantity of casual violence is required? And do you have scientific evidence of these effects? What was the sample size? Who were the researchers? What are their qualifications? What was their methodology? Have their findings been replicated? Are you twisting their findings? No, you understand their findings perfectly? Oh, are you a social scientist yourself then…?
It goes on and on, when everyone must know at some level that they are just wasting time, playing dumb, and basically destroying their society for the sake of, at best, an autistic principle and, at worst, a cheap thrill (whether the thrill of watching violence or the thrill of destroying their society).
So what should Mary Whitehouse have said? Airy-fairy arguments were off the table, and scientific evidence could always be refuted (and was).
I think her best shot would have been to use mockery. She should have mocked those who wanted to see violence in media as pathetic degenerates, and those who wanted to see sex in media as sad perverts who needed to get girlfriends. But mockery was not her style. She had neither the wit nor the imagination to use such tactics. Solemn sincerity, which can always be re-framed as dull self-righteousness, was her only option - and her terminal weakness, for of course it was re-framed. Once a sufficient percentage of society stopped sharing her moral intuition, her personality could be easily lampooned and her arguments easily ignored.
I think, without elite backing, her crusade was always doomed to fail eventually. By sheer persistence and wit, she managed to get very far - personal consultations with the Director General of the BBC, and numerous politicians even including the Prime Minister. But every campaign must have exhausted her, and taking organisations to court costs an absolute fortune, and coffers soon dwindle when one is relying on donations from the ordinary public. Meantime, up and down the country, every university department that had anything to do with media or the arts must have been giving lectures neutralising her as an influence in the minds of the young. In addition, the media never took her terribly seriously, and as the years passed, felt ever less obligated to pretend. In 1989 the BBC even allowed a comedy programme to air with the title The Mary Whitehouse Experience; the title had no relevance to the show, so was chosen purely to mock her. By the time I was becoming aware of the matter of censorship (the mid 1990s), Whitehouse was a joke figure. Liberal teachers at high school would scoff at the very mention of her name.
She retired as president of the National Viewers and Listeners Association in 1994, and died in 2001. That same year, the NVLA changed its name to the soulless “Mediawatch-UK”. The old name explicitly described an organisation comprised of, working for, funded by and concerned about the general public. The new name implied a quango with little or no connection to the general public. That could be a reflection of how its staff felt by 2001 - disconnected from the public they were trying to protect. As Whitehouse’s successor John Beyer wrote:
The greatest difference then [in the 1960s], however, is that there was a much stronger public consensus of what was acceptable on TV and what was not. There was greater certainty about what was good or bad taste and what was decent or indecent. Sadly, all that has changed and broadcasting and film have contributed significantly to the erosion of that consensus and the fragmenting of values.
Beyer sadly had nowhere near Whitehouse’s level of charisma but was, in addition, operating in a radically different world in which his ideas were simply foreign to most people and could not get a foothold.
He was succeeded as director of Mediawatch-UK in 2009 by Vivienne Pattison. During both their tenures, the organisation seems to have steadily lost relevance as the generations that would have supported it died off. Presumably a decision was made to change direction in a bid to “stay relevant”, so when Pattison, a Christian, stepped down in 2019, her successor was Elizabeth Evenden-Kenyon, an anti-Brexit LibDem academic. Her homepage says:
She researches both historical and contemporary uses of hate speech, nationalism masquerading as patriotism, and Islamophobia.
Pledging to switch its focus from blasphemy, violence and sex in the mass media to “harm to children online”, and pledging to promote “social cohesion”… the organisation had now fully castrated itself, with its conservative Christian remit supplanted by contemporary progressive orthodoxy that would be unrecognisable to its founder. After just two years of this incarnation, Mediawatch-UK closed down in 2021. And thus died Mary Whitehouse’s creation, her valiant attempt to halt the decline of her nation.
You could say that, without the force of her personality, this was inevitable. And of course, society changes, and an organisation whose remit is to halt change will either succeed and halt the change, or fail and become irrelevant because of the change. There is no middle ground, really. Society had left the NVLA behind, so of course its time was over.
But really, I think the NVLA’s time was already over when it was founded in 1965. The fact that such an organisation needed to be created is itself a sign that something was fundamentally wrong with British society, and fundamental problems surely, in time, overcome any amateur attempts to thwart them - and they did.
As Whitehouse’s one-time colleague Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in 1971: “It is literally true that but for her the total demolition of all Christian decencies and values in this country would have taken place virtually without a word of public protest.”
Why no protest against such a terrible thing? Because inside every civilised man is an intelligent animal desperate to get out, desperate to indulge its whims, to forget its responsibilities, to believe whatever it wants, to delude itself with gleeful expediency, to seek out the novel and the extreme, to do as it pleases. Offer the masses permissiveness and most will accept it without asking questions. A few reactionaries will complain, but they will be called reactionaries and ignored. The only people who can prevent this cascade of nihilism are a society’s elites, and doing so is perhaps their most important duty.
One of the ways that liberals mock Whitehouse is to call her a “self-appointed moral guardian”. In my opinion, this description is accurate. The problem is that it did indeed fall to a middle-aged, lower-middle-class woman to appoint herself the moral guardian of a nation, since the elites had abdicated that role. A simple person like Mary Whitehouse should not be called upon to do that which should be done by her social, cultural and academic superiors. It is a sign of their profound failure that we even know the name “Mary Whitehouse”.
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We should stop using the term "the elite" because they are anything but elite. The so-called leadership would be more appropriate.
I think Whitehouse held the opinion that even though she was basically a lone voice and therefore assured of receiving widespread mockery, she would have been falling below her own personal standards had she just sat back like everybody else and watched the creeping degeneracy unfold. By the late 1970s, she was about the only principled Briton left. Were the country being invaded by a foreign army, while all the native men caroused or even cheered as the sound of jackboots got louder, Mary Whitehouse would have stood alone and faced the enemy - sword in hand and in her petticoat.
In 1995 Whitehouse apparently appeared on the Mrs Merton Show, although not in the studio. I can't find any footage, but I'm sure they would have been giving her a spiteful kicking. A size-5 Patrick Cox Wannabe Loafer from behind and between the legs for the old dear, as she was slowly exiting the stage to hoots of derision from Cool Britannia. By this point, Caroline Aherne would have already flowered into the alcoholic husband-beater who would later attempt suicide and finally die of lung cancer at the age of 52.
Had Mary Whitehouse not been left to fight the British entertainment industry alone, we might not live in an era when her life is ridiculed while Aherne's is celebrated.