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Mary Whitehouse: Moral crusader or spoilsport?

Friday, 23 November, 2001, 17:31 GMT
Broadcasting standards campaigner Mary Whitehouse has died aged 91. She passed away at the Abberton Manor Nursing Home in Colchester, Essex, after a long illness. BBC News Online takes a look at her life.

To some she was the guardian of Christian family values, to others a self-appointed busybody.

For more than 30 years, Mary Whitehouse led the charge of the middle-class moralists to purge the "poison being poured into millions of homes through television".

Acting on the principles of a "dedicated school teacher and a committed Christian", she organised the first meeting of her Clean Up TV Campaign with a friend in 1964.

A total of 37 coachloads of supporters filled Birmingham Town Hall, and Whitehouse's notoriety among the liberal establishment was assured.

Whitehouse's crusade began in Birmingham

She complained vehemently of the increasing "blasphemy, bad language, violence and indecency" she saw on television, and became the first General Secretary of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association in 1965.

This was no one-woman crusade. The Association boasted policemen and bishops among its patrons, and 400,000 supporters.

She was the scourge of the "permissive society", and pilloried by the media, whom she in turn attacked. Her chief target in the early 1960s was the BBC.

She was offended by its Wednesday Play, by the emerging late-night satire and by the increasing freedom of material enjoyed by BBC producers under director-general Sir Hugh Greene.

Whitehouse considered the racist humour of Til Death Us Do Part to be "entirely subversive to our whole way of life".


She was happy to fight for the benefits of censorship in the courthouse.

In 1974, she launched an unsuccessful lawsuit against a cinema manager for showing the violent thriller Blow-Out.

But she emerged the victor from court in 1977, after suing the Gay News for blasphemous libel.

Five years later, Whitehouse appeared on the verge of winning a private prosecution for a homosexual rape scene in the National Theatre play Romans in Britain.

She suddenly withdrew her case, happy to have made her point and uninterested in the prospect of a conviction.

Whitehouse enjoyed much popular support 

Her influence on the setting up of the Broadcasting Standards Council in 1988 was acknowledged by its first chairman, Lord Rees Mogg, who credited her with helping ensure "the public view was always taken into account".

Tainted with an image of a blue-rinsed reactionary, Whitehouse endured years of abuse, stink bombs and pies in the face.

Even after she officially retired in 1994 and later moved into a nursing home, she continued to vent her spleen into her nineties on what she called the crassness of the BBC, this time for omitting to televise part of the Queen Mother's 100th birthday celebrations.

In her book Whatever Happened to Sex, she explained that as a happy family woman she had nothing against sex, but against its exploitation in the media.

And the Wolverhampton schoolteacher who bombarded Broadcasting House, Downing Street and Buckingham Palace in turn, always explained that her concerns were not those of a repressive patrician, but just "a manifestation of common sense and responsibility".

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