One of the most interesting periods — for me at any rate — of my time as an Anglican clergyman (how very distant it all seems now, after 20 years as a Catholic layman) was the early 1980s, when I was attached to Pusey House, Oxford, and was the Bishop of Oxford’s chaplain to graduate students in the University. This led to fairly regular invitations to preach in college chapels (this was, to give a sense of the times, the heyday of the Goodies — you have to be old enough to understand this story — one of whom was the hairy ornithologist Bill Oddie: I remember turning up to preach at Pembroke College to find that a large poster outside the lodge gate, reading “Preacher at Evensong: the Revd Dr William Oddie” had been amended by the addition of the words “assisted by the Revd Dr Timothy Brooke-Taylor and the Revd Dr Graeme Garden”).
One of these invitations, to preach at Brasenose College, was from its then chaplain, now the famous Dean of St Alban’s, Dr Jeffrey John, to substitute for the anti-porn, anti-indecency-in-general campaigner Mary Whitehouse, inventor of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, who had had to cancel her agreement to preach at the last minute. Why me? I not unnaturally asked: well, he answered, you were the nearest thing in Oxford to Mary Whitehouse I could think of.
In those days, that wasn’t a comfortable reputation to have. These days, the extent of the volte-face over Mary Whitehouse (and even, ironically, over some of her snobbishly superior detractors, notably Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, Director-General of the then immune-from-criticism BBC, who turn out to have been dead wrong: how very different things are now) is truly amazing. For, Mary Whitehouse just got it absolutely right about the threat to our society and particularly to our children, of the dismantling of the traditional moral inhibitions of our culture, about the growth of what some called “the permissive society”, but what was also famously called “the civilised society” by that living embodiment of the French expression “de haut en bas” (that is, looking down on others from a deep conviction of effortless superiority), the notable Home Secretary Roy Jenkins.
When a book based on Mary Whitehouse’s correspondence, Ban This Filth!, was published last November, it was astonishing to see with what respect she was treated by the Left-wing press. As Andrew Anthony explained in the Observer, “while Whitehouse remained unwavering in her position, the ground around her shifted. When she started out in the 1960s a libertarian idealism suffused the arts and was making headway in society at large. Each new advance against censorship was seen as an unproblematic triumph over oppression. Then gradually some enlightened attitudes edged towards Whitehouse on issues like the commercial sexualisation of children and the sexual exploitation of women…. although Whitehouse was a true blue Tory, her view of the sex industry shared common ground with Marxist economic critiques. Hers was always the kind of small-mindedness that sensed a bigger picture. If she were alive today she would no doubt see the Jimmy Savile saga, and the panic it has unleashed at the BBC, as a vindication of her warnings.”
As the New Statesman’s reviewer, William Cook, asked, “now that every conceivable depravity is only a mouse-click away, you can’t help wondering if Whitehouse was on to something. Was the liberal intelligentsia wrong to mock her? Do we owe her a posthumous apology? Would an online version of her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association actually be quite a good idea?” (Actually, of its modern descendant, Mediawatch-UK, there already is one: see here).
Well, Cook, who is a genuine Lefty (he thinks the BBC is now a conservative, even Right-wing organisation, which needs a Mary Whitehouse of the Left) doesn’t want, exactly, to apologise. He sees that what motivated her was what he calls, with predictable hostility, her “Christian fundamentalism”. She believed, in other words, in chastity before marriage and fidelity within it. Her attitude to homosexuality was, says Cook, “similarly puritanical”. These beliefs derived from her faith and she believed that the state broadcaster should actively promote them, rather than airing material that undermined them. As she put it herself, “I was doing what I believed God wanted me to do.” She had noted that in the foyer of Broadcasting House there was a plaque, reading “This temple of the arts and muses is dedicated to Almighty God” (I wonder if it’s still there?) And quite simply, Mary Whitehouse expected the BBC to take this dedication literally. No wonder they all laughed at her.
Well, I didn’t, even then. She wasn’t always right: she simply missed the point about some programmes: the plays of Dennis Potter, Till Death Us do Part, even, for heaven’s sake, Doctor Who. All the same, as Cook admits, “she was no fool. She had a coherent philosophy – that the moral values of the BBC (and other broadcasters) were out of step with the silent majority whom she presumed to represent. Before cable and satellite, a handful of terrestrial channels set the agenda for the nation. For her generation, TV wasn’t a matter of choice. A lot of her protests were wrong-headed and deserved to be rebutted but it was fitting that these trendsetters were challenged to justify their output.” He complains that her opinions were reactionary and that her complaints always came from the Right, rather than the Left. But she wasn’t a Lefty like Cook, what do you expect? And he admits, that ironically, “by the time her provincial doppelgänger Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, radical feminists had adopted her as an unlikely heroine.”
I thought she was a great woman, even at the time. I supported her private prosecution of Gay News for blasphemous libel (even though it was opposed by two of my literary heroes, Bernard Levin and Margaret Drabble), an initiative which contrary to common belief actually succeeded. If you doubt that, look here. As the BBC reported, “She objected to a poem and illustration published in the fortnightly paper last year about a homosexual centurion’s love for Christ at the Crucifixion. After the jury gave their 10-2 guilty verdict at the Old Bailey Mrs Whitehouse said: ‘I’m rejoicing because I saw the possibility of Our Lord being vilified. Now it’s been shown that it won’t be’.”
However ridiculous she may have seemed to bien-pensant intellectuals, she was motivated always by her love of God. And I still thank God for her witness and for her achievements, including the still functioning and still invaluable NVALA, now Mediawatch-UK (for link see above). May she rest in peace.