Nothing to do with prudery


In 1993 Mary Whitehouse CBE, President of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, delivered the following address to the Annual Convention



t is a strange experience to find oneself involved now with precisely those issues that were uppermost in our minds almost 30 years ago.  That it should have taken the tragic and fearsome murder of a little two-year-old boy to move the minds and hearts of us all to ask - why? - is a burden we must all carry.


Speaking at our very first public meeting at Birmingham Town Hall in May 1964, I said as a matter of common sense "If you constantly portray violence as normal on television it will help to create a violent society" and how laughed to scorn we were.  And we constantly declared to the hollow laughter of the so-called libertarians that the exploitation of sex and the use of foul language could only demean human relationships and degrade communication.  And nothing has happened in the years since to undermine those convictions. Indeed experience has strengthened them.



We are all aware of, and grateful for, the way in which the media - the press in particular - has been prepared, at long last, to echo this concern, though I note with some dismay that there is a tendency to condemn violence while giving excuses for foul language and sexual explicitness.  This is a very dangerous path to follow.  Take the matter of foul language.  It has, as we know, always been a characteristic of human communication to fall back on verbal abuse as a safety value.  But once this language is normalised by constant use then physical violence becomes the automatic reaction to anger.  Concern about the often, gross, exploitation of human sexuality in films and television has nothing to do with prudery.  It has everything to do with a passionate concern to treasure the God given experience, which lies at the very heart of human existence.  When men - and women - as is happening now, ruthlessly exploit sex until pornography and violence become commonplace then all of us, including the children, are anaesthetised to the horrors around us.



etailed monitoring of late night films shown on all channels has in recent months been carried out by committed and I can only say noble, members of NVALA.  Copies of the reports have been sent to the Prime Minister amongst others and have, I am sure, played a key role in his Government's growing determination to take action in this field.  I would not wish to inflict upon you here more than a brief reference to the kind of material I am talking about but when I tell you, for example, that in film 'commando' (ITV), heavy with vicious violence and constant foul language, a man holds a serrated knife at a bound child's throat.  Endless violence has characterised these films with variations such as in the French film 'les valeuses' when two louts menacing a lone young woman on a train with her baby, make her submit to her breast being sucked for milk by one of the youths while the other one stood by.  They then turned to watch another woman commit suicide by pointing a revolver between her legs and pulling the trigger.


These monitoring reports have been sent to Mr Duke Hussey of the BBC, Mr George Russell, Chairman of the ITC and to the heads of the individual companies involved.  Their replies have indeed made interesting reading.  On the one hand Sir John Banham, Chairman of Westcountry television concludes his reply by thanking us for taking the trouble to write and expresses the hope that, to quote, we in VALA "will be encouraged to keep up our very important work".  John McGuckian, Chairman of Ulster television, concludes his reply with the words "your constant promptings remind us of our responsibilities in that regard and ensure that they are given the prominence and priority which they deserve".  The Chairman of Anglia, David McCall, says that we are "right to be vigilant about the amount of violence seen on the television screen".  In varying degrees all the other replies were courteous, thoughtful and concerned as was that from Mr Hussey, Chairman of the Governors of the BBC.  He made it clear to us that he shares our "feeling of sorrow and revulsion over this terrible murder" and assured us that he and his colleagues are "well aware of the need to keep the kind of issues mentioned at the forefront of their minds".


One reply that 'stood out a mile' was that from Michael Grade, Chief Executive of C4.  He returned my letter unanswered with a brief note marked 'personal'.  However, not least, in view of the violently obscene nature of some of the films transmitted by his channel as well as others, the public interest demands that his letter should be published.  It reads as follows:


"Whilst I share the nation's horror at the murder of James Bulger, I do not believe it helps to use the event to launch one of your campaigns.  I am surprised at you.  I am returning your letter which I consider unworthy". 


Extraordinary!  But we did not need to launch a campaign.  So great was the national revulsion aroused by little James Bulger's death that it was the media - press, TV and radio which reflected the Country's horror and which came to us for comment.  Far from being in the vanguard of enlightened broadcasting philosophy, Mr Grade, has shown himself as being far behind the times!  One wonders what advertisers will make of it all not only from within Britain but from far afield.  A Japanese TV crew flew over specially to interview us.  Canadian TV also arrived, as did journalists from international, national and regional papers and radio programmes.


Time and again the point was headlined that we had been "right all the time".  But the point is not whether we had been proved right but what adjustments the broadcasters are prepared to make in the light of this public concern or will it all be forgotten "nothing so dead as yesterday's news" as the saying goes.  It fills one with despair almost to see how people who should know better have refused to face up to the challenge.  Michael Winner for one as one would expect.  More seriously Colin Shaw, Director of the BSC, was also quoted in The Times as saying "nobody has discovered a direct link between television violence and violence on the streets".  My heart sank as I read it that someone in Mr Shaw's position should be so ill-informed about international research, carried out over many years, in many countries, which does indeed leave impartial commentators with no doubt as to the truth of the matter.



he American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Parent Teacher Association are among hundreds of academic bodies internationally which have all concluded that there is overwhelming evidence that TV and film violence causes important increases in real life violence and aggression in normal children and adult viewers.  Their research has shown that factual, non-glorifying documentaries have been found to increase rather than decrease sensitivity to violence.  When the purpose is to entertain, however, major increases in verbal aggression, anxiety and actual criminal behaviour have been repeatedly found.  The overwhelming consensus of this research is that "violent entertainment plays a major role in teaching a culture and distrust to all ages, social classes, ethnic backgrounds and intelligence levels".


It is really amazing to see how the concerns and solutions to them that we put forward all those years ago are still valid today.  I am not claiming for a moment that our battles have been financially won, only that the validity of our challenges has been reinforced as time has gone on and increasingly public opinion has moved to support us.  There have been specific victories - The Child Protection Act, The Indecent Displays Act, The Video Recordings Act now lie upon the statute book and the BSC called for at our very first public meeting 30 years ago.  It has to be said that none of these have served to halt the tide of violence and decadence that has demanded such a terrible price, not least, from the young as the pitiable fate of little James Bulger reminds us.  In an extraordinary way that awful tragedy may well have served to turn the tide.


How encouraging to see that the young - the children - have a very clear sense of where at least some of the blame lies.  Two weeks ago the news of the world published the results of a poll they had had conducted amongst children by 'continental research'.  "An overwhelming 98% of youngsters admitted gory TV shows, movies, videos and video games had a harmful effect on behaviour and "33% of children listed TV violence as the biggest single cause of youth crime".  "A huge majority - 87% of youngsters polled - also claimed that children copied what they had seen on screen.  "Other factors felt to have contributed to the rise in crime included bad homes, lack of parental discipline and the declining influence of religion.  "But the level of violence on TV shows and especially videos is clearly what worries people the most.  Asked id they thought there was too much violence on TV, 61% of adults said there was, with 39% satisfied the level was 'about right'.  Nearly half (45%) of children aged six to 14 said there was too much, or the rest, 53% thought it was about right and 2% complained there was not enough!  More than half the children (57%) had seen one or both of Arnold Schwarzenegger's 'Terminator' movies and 25% had seen the Hannibal the Cannibal shocker 'Silence of the Lambs'.  Those were the top three named by adults as having high levels of violence or sex.  Another 42% of kids had watched 'Robocop' and 29% listed 'Nightmare on Elm Street'.


At the end of all this what can I say but that imitation lies at the very heart of human experience from birth to death and for intelligent professionals now to claim that there has to be proof of a link between televised and social violence is a measure of just how far they and indeed all who subscribe to the idea have moved into an unreal world.  How, for instance, can you prove that little children copy the activities of other children.  You can't except by seeing how they behave.


It is against this background that it is worth considering the role of the broadcasting standards council and how at our very first meeting in Birmingham all those years ago we powerfully criticised the contempt with which viewer’s complaints were treated.  We said that what was needed was an Independent Broadcasting Council through which viewers could be assured that their voices would be heard and, where appropriate, acted upon.  It took over 25 years for the present Broadcasting Standards Council to be established and I would be less than honest if I did not confess to considerable disappointment.  From the time we first called for such a body we always envisaged it as an independent voice for the viewers and listeners.  The fact that, for example, Colin Shaw, its Director, has spent a lifetime in television means that ordinary people feel that their views are swept aside and discounted.  It is a matter of great regret that the Council, in its present form makes far less contribution to the raising of broadcasting standards than we had expected.  Inevitably with the development of satellite the public will feel less and less confident of being able to make any effective contribution to the quality of an industry that has so profound an effect upon our lives.  The heart of the problem lies with the Council's policy of criticising and commenting upon the complaints received rather than accepting them as the genuine reaction of the viewer with the result that a very high proportion of them are rejected. 



arlier this month I received a letter from the Rt Rev Bill Westwood, Bishop of Peterborough, who has been a member of the Council since its establishment and I think it is a document that the Prime Minister may well wish to study.  The Bishop has given me permission to quote from his letter in which he says that he "found himself always in a minority" and that he looks upon his "tenure of that office as one of the failures of my life.  In discussion and voting I was regularly defeated by a combination of that sociological and psychological and media centred thinking which characterises our generation".  "I believe, he said, that the standards of our television have declined and believe that the horrendous material which appears on television programmes and on video is now a major contributory cause of the breakdown of the social fabric of our society ... those responsibility for television are more casual in their approach to violence and will go on being so in my judgement despite the James Bulger tragedy.  I believe that portrayal of sex is for the most part without any context or commitment despite the geometric progression of AIDS throughout the world.  I fear that their attachment to the easy and cynical laugh continues, despite the fact that we are in a desperately serious situation as a nation.  All these things continued to grow in my four years on the council and this most powerful of all influences in a nation, other than the home, continues in its shoddy way.  This was probably one of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century and could have done so much more for us".  "So that is very sad comment of an institution which was born out of so much hope.  One cannot resist the thought that there has been a concerted campaign amongst media oriented members of the Council to undermine and destroy its powers".


I propose, therefore, that a resolution go from this meeting to the Prime Minister requesting that he immediately set in motion whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the council becomes the voice of the people and not its judge.



ow let me say with all the conviction at my command that I am in no doubt that what the future holds, not only as far as broadcasting is concerned but as far as the whole quality of our culture and therefore our family and national life, will depend upon the will of everyone of us to create a more effective obscenity law.  The truth is that it has been - and is - the failure of the present Obscene Publications Act that has landed us in the mess we are now in.  All our high ideals and lofty aims will fail and all that has been achieved over the years will come to nought unless our commitment to effective obscenity law is fulfilled.


Earlier this month an exhibition of pornography was shown to nearly 400 MPs in the House of Commons.  Some of them walked out, unable to take it, many expressed themselves "appalled and sickened" by what they had seen saying that they realised for the first time just how disastrous the situation is.  I would beg you now to use every opportunity within the media and the press, in all your public speaking and preaching to this end.  Let us meet with and encourage our MPs to put pressure upon the Government - in other words give them no peace until the necessary action has been taken.  I would draw your attention to the fact that our proposals for amending the law are available on the bookstall for you to give to your MP.


The truth is that no one should have any peace or know any complacency until this last great hurdle is overcome and the children, and indeed everyone, deserve no less.


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