Making our Voices Heard

By John C Beyer, Director mediawatch-uk

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n the day that Mary Whitehouse was called home the telephone did not stop ringing until very late. One after another journalists wanted some 'inside' and personal comment from me because I had worked alongside Mary for almost twenty years until she retired as our President in 1994. The television news bulletins that evening included faded film clips of the original meeting in 1965 at Birmingham Town Hall. Coach loads of people were seen arriving eager to show their support for this schoolteacher who had experienced at first hand the damaging effect of television on the thinking of the children in her care. Mary was shown addressing the gathering in her broad 'brummy' accent: "If violence is seen as normal on the television screen," she said, "it will help to create a violent society".

The next day the newspapers included lengthy tributes and generous obituaries giving testimony to Mary's courage and tenacity.

Directly linking television with social behaviour seemed like common sense, and still the damaging influence of violent entertainment is hotly debated by academics and remains the subject of intense scientific and social research. Today violence in films and on television is a matter of real public concern as we see around us a society saturated with violent imagery and experiencing high levels of violent crime and social disorder.

Since the 23 November many people have sent messages of condolence and support for the on going work. Several made the point that history will vindicate Mary and the cause she founded. The astonishing achievements of almost forty years are recorded in the six books she wrote and these provide an insight into the kind and compassionate person who wrote them. Mary's concern was always for children and young people who she believed should be allowed to grow up and mature at their own pace rather than having maturity, and a lot more besides, forced upon them by the media. "Better a millstone" was a title often used for the talks she delivered around the country.

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t is evident from the many features that have been written in the last few weeks that Mary Whitehouse at least caused people to think about the influence of the media and she reminded the practitioners of the responsibilities they carry. Some cynics say that the campaign was a comprehensive failure because the overwhelming forces of liberalism are unstoppable. Such a judgement is premature because there are consequences for society that we ignore. The real failure, largely overlooked, has been with those, charged by Parliament to regulate broadcasting according to the law and their own codes and guidelines, who have allowed standards of taste and decency to incrementally decline.

A report published recently asserts that Britain has become a nation of adulterers where men and women casually cheat on their partners. The divorce bill is costing around 5 billion a year. Has the portrayal of casual sexual conduct in film and on television helped bring this about? Will the obscene phrase, uttered by the singer Madonna at last week's Turner Prize - and shown on television - quickly become commonplace in the school playground?

Next year a new Communications Bill will come before Parliament laying foundations for the regulation of the media in the future. Revolutionary developments have taken place in the technology that enables us to communicate with each other. Mobile telephones, the Internet, e-mail and television and radio are going digital. Around the world governments are legislating for the new and complex information society taking into account national and global ramifications. It is essential that this new legislation strike the right balance between the industry and the consumer.

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s always mediawatch-uk, formerly known as The National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, is at the forefront of the campaign for better broadcasting. We have already submitted a ten-point plan ('A Fair Deal for Stakeholders') to the Government aimed at strengthening the position of the viewing public. We believe that much more ought to be done to canvas public opinion about programmes and standards of taste and decency. The regulator, to be called OFCOM, should be required to draw up a comprehensive and well-defined Code of Practice that should be made available to the public. And there should be meaningful sanctions against those who breach the rules.

Mary Whitehouse was undoubtedly a significant figure of the twentieth century and she demonstrated what could be achieved given the determination. The future holds many challenges and perhaps the biggest of these is not to pass by on the other side by switching off and remaining silent when programmes offend. We all owe it to Mary Whitehouse, who sacrificed a very great deal, to continue the work that she started. In order to succeed many more people will have to be involved to build on the substantial achievements of the past and to ensure that they will mean much more in the future.

12 December 2001

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