Ahead of her time? Programme re-evaluates Mary Whitehouse’s legacy

Radio 4 programme presented by Samira Ahmed argues case for nuance in judging campaigner mocked as ‘puritanical harridan’

She has long been a symbol for mid-20th century moral panic, a censorious crusader quixotically tilting at the windmills of sexual liberation and social liberalism, but a senior BBC broadcaster has suggested the legacy of Mary Whitehouse may be due for reappraisal.

Samira Ahmed, who grew up in 1970s and 80s watching the much-mocked campaigner against perceived immorality in the British media “demonised and mocked as a puritanical harridan”, has produced an hour-long Radio 4 programme on Whitehouse’s diaries, which were donated to the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library and cover 30 years of her life.

As a schoolteacher from the Midlands, Whitehouse came to prominence in 1964 after launching a campaign to clean up the BBC’s output. From then she became a regular feature in the media and on the BBC itself, giving speeches all over the country in defence of traditional marriage, heterosexuality and polite language.

Ahmed said she wondered whether, as an older woman, she might now be able to understand what drove the campaigner.

She told Radio Times she found herself impressed by Whitehouse and often smiled at the diary entries, which reflected “a witty woman who loved fashion, enjoyed a lively argument and liked the company of young people”.

“Her account of a phone call in which she harangued David Attenborough – then controller of BBC2 – over showing a sexually explicit film convinced me the experience may well have made him return to wildlife presenting, feeling safer in the jungle. Perhaps we owe her a debt of gratitude,” Ahmed said.

The presenter suggested Whitehouse’s concerns echoed contemporary debates about the government’s forthcoming legislation which could result in online age checks for adult material. “Her lobbying created laws banning the making of child pornography, indecent displays of porn magazines in newsagents and forced the vetting of home videos – all protections we now take for granted,” she said. “The current online harms bill is trying to address dangers she warned of 40 years ago.”

Ahmed said she could not make excuses for Whitehouse’s strong religious belief that homosexuality was sinful. But she praised her for facing down media executives “who sneered at this grey-haired Midlands schoolteacher” and for running a “relentless lifelong campaign to tighten obscenity laws and regulate digital technology in order to protect children”.

Towards the end of Whitehouse’s life she had become a figure of mockery, even being namechecked in the title of a BBC comedy show. But Ahmed said there was a case for nuance in judging Whitehouse’s legacy.

She said: “At the time people joked about her objections to violence in children’s TV shows such as Doctor Who, but producers are far more sensitive as a result to what we see on screen, including the exploitation of young actors in sexually explicit scenes.”


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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