Mediocre Books: The Mary Whitehouse Experience

marywhitehouseYou’re a professional in a public facing role. A complaint lands on your desk. The complaint will be at least three pages or a thousand words long. The letterhead address will be a house that has a name, in one of a thousand forgotten English towns. The handwriting will be preposterous, and the prose seasoned with random punctuation and unnecessary capitalisations. Its subject will be some trivial local issue, or a G-spot national policy debate – immigration, international aid, Iraq, Israel or welfare. Regardless of content, the tone will essentially be reactionary, self-satisfied and provincial. The complainant will look down on migrants, foreigners in general, and benefit claimants. (The complainants probably don’t work themselves, but then, why should they?) If the complaint has arrived by email, it will have been cced (not bcced) to every influential person with a publicly available address, including the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Duchess of Cornwall. There will be little concession to courtesy or readability. The message will end with a thinly disguised threat to take the complaint to the papers if whatever impossible demand is not met. I say threat, but it’s unlikely even a regional editor would be interested in what the complainant has to say. The complainant will be the kind of person who does not appear in newspapers unless the story ends with ‘and ordered to sign the Sex Offenders’ Register for three years.’

In the para above I have tried to encapsulate the kind of complaint that gets sent to councils, politicians, police forces, newspapers and TV stations. These days of course everyone’s a complainant. The internet has given us an orchestra of one-man media monitoring services. Bloggers and tweeters ruthlessly analyse and critique media representations and attitudes. Leveson said the web was an ethical void. If anything the internet is too moral. A UKIP councillor says something bigoted, a newspaper prints a chauvinist op-ed, and it’s halfway around the world in seconds and it dominates the cycle at the expense of more important stories. Where this departs from my dismissive caricature is that many complainants these days are progressive or at least think they are. As the journalist David Hepworth said, Disgusted on Tunbridge Wells has become Appalled of Stoke Newington. And so perhaps this stupid, overlong and overhyped book can actually tell us something. In his introduction to Mary Whitehouse’s letters, Ben Thompson claims that ‘From feminist anti-porn campaigns to UK Uncut, and the Taliban and Mumsnet, Mary Whitehouse’s monuments are all around us.’

Ban This Filth has been reviewed along the lines of ‘Well, we laughed at her, but maybe the old girl was right after all.’ The broadsheet critics have a point. There is far more to complain about than in Whitehouse’s day. How can you not be angry and appalled at a culture that sells dangerous diabetes-inducing junk food to children, where women writers receive violent and sexualised misogynist abuse and death threats, where the broken people are encouraged to parade their dysfunctional lives through reality shows that could have been devised by a Nietzschean fantasist? Too often our culture seems summed up by creepshots and Jeremy Kyle. It’s a world where hatred passes for criticism and casual cruelty passes for comedy.

I have no problem with traditional values and there’s a strong case for having some kind of vanguard for public decency. Many of Whitehouse’s targets appeared radical at the time, but were self-satisfied Footlights acts dated even back then. And in an era with only a few television channels and no internet it was fair enough to debate what should fill the limited airtime. But Mary Whitehouse was not content to campaign against merely distasteful and explicit programming. She was a Christian evangelical who wanted to impose her interpretation of the world to the exclusion of everything else. And she had some familiar Christian hangups. ‘I am writing in response to press reports that the ‘EastEnders’ cast is to include a homosexual couple living together,’ she wrote to the BBC. The following para gives us an insight into the nature of bigotry:

I cannot emphasise too strongly our anxiety about the threat to the young – and others – of any ‘normalising’ of homosexual practices in your programmes. It is important that we have compassion and concern for homosexuals. It is equally, if not in your circumstances more important, that concern for the impact of such material upon viewers in particular should be paramount.

This encapsulates Christian prejudice. Whitehouse does not want to lock gay people up or put them in camps. She would probably have been horrified by that idea. The term ‘homosexual’ is used in a clinical sense: Whitehouse sees gay people as if they suffer from some tragic and transmittable disease. Gays are not actively wicked but they are sick and it is necessary that they be kept out of sight, lest their condition become ‘normalised’. This is not homophobia in its contemporary sense, but anxiety and disgust and even a terrible kind of compassion.

Well, Whitehouse lost that one. As Jonathan Freedland pointed out yesterday, it was that cultural  ‘normalisation’ of gay lives just as much as political activism that made equal marriage possible. Conversely, Whitehouse’s attempts at cultural cleansing were undoubtedly responsible for a great deal of avoidable human suffering. There is a letter from a gay man in Northern Ireland asking for help and support for what he saw as a shameful condition.

I have never quite belonged to the lobby who sees the new ‘gaiety’ as ‘normal’ behaviour, nor have I ever joined any gay organisation. As a musician and creative artist I have chosen to channel my frustrations into altruistic channels – but the feedback is not without its moments of despair. I have often contemplated thoughts of suicide.

The letter is heartbreaking to read, and made me wonder why we see Whitehouse as worthy of our time, why her legacy is seen as worth having. I wonder if the gay Northern Irish man is still alive. I hope he learned he had nothing to be ashamed of.

An uninterrupted volume of Whitehouse’s correspondence would be a pointless dirge, unreadable even for ironic value. So Thompson is obliged to pad out the letters with lengthy commentary in that jaunty and verbose style that passes for wit in the English bourgoisie. This is never less than irritating and at some points akin to torture. To give Thompson credit he does touch on the controversial points of Whitehouse’s philosophy: ‘The dispiriting impact of the stratospheric levels of bigotry on display in many of the letters she received is often compounded by a closing signature that begins with the prefix ‘Rev’ (translation: Whitehouse was supported by bigoted priests who shared her prejudice against gays). There are attempts to draw parallels with the Islamic grievances that would hold the creative world to ransom from 9/11 on. In his own review the Observer’s Andrew Anthony quipped that ‘Perhaps Whitehouse would have been taken more seriously by her liberal antagonists if her supporters had offered a plausible violent threat.’

In general Thompson treats Whitehouse with a joshing affection she clearly doesn’t merit. We hear almost nothing about the lady’s personal life – she would want it that way – but you get a picture of a disagreeable egotist: six autobiographies, numerous libel writs, including a private prosecution of the magazine Gay News, after it published an erotic poem about Jesus. Thompson’s epilogue includes this revealing line: ‘When interviewed by David Dimbleby for Person to Person, Mary’s husband Ernest spoke of her in the same breath as the suffragettes and the great anti-slavery campaigner Lord Wilberforce.’ There is a kick in moral superiority. The rush of self-satisfaction is a narcotic.

I’m guessing Thompson’s book went to press before the Jimmy Savile scandal broke, for there’s no mention of it here. I think it’s fair to say that people in the media class knew. There are throwaway lines in interviews and sitcoms that are chilling in retrospect. In Britain, if you have the power, if you’re a big fish in a small pond, you can do pretty much anything. You can rape and hurt women and children, if that’s your inclination. The libel laws will protect you, and hey, it’s all for charity. Think of all those starving kids in Africa and say nothing.

Reading Hunter S Thompson’s letters, I came across a letter to Olympia in which HST turned down the opportunity to endorse George Kimball’s novel, which he saw as a ‘violent sex book’. Thompson was offered $500 to write ten words, and at a time when the money was badly needed. But the drug-fiend gonzo journalist could not ‘under any circumstances endorse that heap of deranged offal that Mr Kimball has coughed up in the shameful guise of art.’ He added: ‘pornography is one thing, but raw obscenity is quite another.’ Around the same time Cyril Smith was mayor of Rochdale and Jimmy Savile was doing youth TV, dancing around at some community fun day, hiding in plain sight. I make this juxtaposition because common decency can come from the most unlikely places. And sometimes it’s wholesome family values that protect and enable the true capering and corrupting evil.


2 Responses to “Mediocre Books: The Mary Whitehouse Experience”

  1. samjordison Says:

    Very good.

  2. februarycallendar Says:

    Always liked this piece.

    I think where the whole organisation (latterly Mediawatch) lost its power and status – which had been very considerable at its peak – after she retired and eventually died was that it concentrated its attacks on “distasteful” broadcasting on the effects first of post-war liberalism and then of the ’68 generation, and couldn’t come to terms with the post-1990 world where most of the things that a cultural traditionalist might object to in broadcasting came instead from the legacy of Thatcherism.

    Whitehouse’s movement used broadcasting as its front for a wider cultural attack, and that worked well (on their level and on their terms) for as long as the things that could be condemned from a Reithian perspective were coming largely from one sort of Left or other. But as soon as those people had been largely frozen out of UK broadcasting, they were confused and didn’t know where to turn. Hadn’t the changes been brought about by another middle-aged small-town housewife with whom Whitehouse had a good working relationship? Like many other conservatives, they could not face the fact that, in practice, their heroine had not really been on their side.

    So their arguments fell apart and became desperately unconvincing; from the 1990s onwards the movement (by then led by John Beyer; does it even exist now?) would routinely condemn what was in fact the product of the deregulated market and anti-state libertarianism as if it had been dreamt up entirely by the Left (yes, many ’68-ers in the Blair government did accept these things; no, they hadn’t invented them in the first place). When it did attack the products of commercialism, greed and individualism its arguments seemed empty and hollow, because they still had so much residual loyalty to the central cause of these changes that they refused to attack the central cause; they hovered around the fringes but were afraid of hitting the main cause lest they themselves fall apart and lose their self-confidence as a result.

    And so people who had once taken them seriously just laughed at them; they lost their social place because they were only happy and self-confident attacking Left or liberal-rooted breaches of Reithian protocol. Once the attacks on their world were coming from global capitalism instead, they didn’t know where to turn and could no longer construct a coherent argument. They were destroyed by those who they thought would save their specialness and status. A common story but rarely as total as that – they would still chip in whenever there was a Mail-started shitstorm, like Sachsgate, but when there was a huge broadcasting storm where the issues were in part that the effects of the loss of restraint and decorum were damaging not to Reithian ideas of “taste” but to the acceptance of visible minorities in Britain – as over the racist language used by Jade Goody and Jo O’Meara – they literally had nothing to say; the people they would have to defend were people who they did not understand and for whom they had no feeling, and as the root cause could not be put down either to post-war liberalism or to ’68, but rather to similar mean-minded, petty prejudices to those they themselves held but in a more polite, unspoken way, they were not comfortable attacking the source. The source of what could be complained about was, increasingly, their own attitudes expressed in a cruder and nastier way, the Sun rather than the Telegraph. So they said nothing; what could be complained about was no longer “the Other”; it was too close to home.

    Richard Hoggart wrote a decent Old Left overview after Whitehouse died in 2001; that he had a good deal more sympathy with her views on broadcasting than any of the subsequent generation of Leftists ever could have done, but that he knew she was making the wrong friends and allies (for her own paternalistic, top-down outlook on what should and should not be broadcast) from the mid-1970s onwards.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: