A dreadful price to pay


In 1994 Mary Whitehouse CBE retired as president of the National Viewers and Listeners Association.  The following is the address she delivered the Annual Convention



nevitably at a time like this one looks back to the beginning of what, in the event, has turned out to be a nationwide, indeed worldwide campaign.  Only last week we received a request for assistance in launching a similar campaign from Chile and it is only a few weeks since Rev Graham Stevens, our Chairman, went to Lithuania to advise them at their request.  One recalls with love and gratitude those who were part of it all from the beginning like Ernest of course, the late Basil and Norah Buckland and Dr David Sturdy whose wife is with us today.  What days they were!  Every one an adventure in strange and sometimes dangerous ways.


Throughout the years, our work has always been a manifestation of common sense, that least common of virtues and or responsibility.  It has been a measure of the power of the media and of television in particular that the obvious truths we were upholding should have been made by the use of ridicule and contempt, to appear untenable in the minds of some people at least.  And yet it was the late Sir Hugh Greens, Director General of the BBC for the first twelve years of our existence, who said the "Television is the most powerful medium ever to affect the thinking and behaviour of people".  And that surely is incontrovertible but the real question is - what is television transmitting?  Perhaps of all one's experiences our first public meeting in the 2,000 capacity Birmingham Town Hall 30 years ago this month stands without parallel.  There were only four of us to organise it, and none of us with any experience of such affairs.  The fact that the 'Times' correspondent the following morning referred to the packed meeting and described it as "perhaps the most extraordinary meeting ever held in the Birmingham Town Hall" gives some indication of the miracle that was wrought.


And one has other vivid memories of that night, the students who rushed the platform, the call we made for "An Independent Broadcasting Council" as an alternative outlet for complaints and our declaration that "Television violence helps to create a violent society".


It is a strange experience to look back now and realise what a dreadful price society and that means people, have had to pay for the stubborn, one is tempted to say wicked, almost total resistance over the years to an acceptance by the broadcasters of the power of the medium they handle to influence public and personal behaviour.  There is no doubt in my mind that programmes like, say, C4s titled, would you believe it, 'Goodfellas'!  Transmitted last month at 10.00pm when it is known that countless youngsters are still viewing, make pernicious nonsense of the obligation not to transmit programmes 'likely to incite to crime and disorder".  The considered view of monitors is that this was arguably the most explicitly violent and visually brutal film shown on television to date, in which people were hacked and burnt to death all in the name of entertainment.


The fact that the programme began with a warning to viewers to the effect that it contains "lurid scenes of violence and very strong language" could merely serve to attract the kind of people, including youngsters, most likely to be adversely affected by it.  I won't distress you by referring to more than the opening brutal and explicit sequence typical of the whole film in which an already battered and bleeding man is repeated stabbed with a broad blade butchers knife, followed by shots of a Father beating up his son, savagely lashing him across his face with a belt.  All accompanied, as throughout the film, with gross obscenities and blasphemies, and that is for entertainment!  As we prepare for this convention we hear on the news that 2 million men, women and children are "hacked to death" in Rwanda.


I would like to read to you the open letter that I propose we send from this meeting to Michael Grade, Chief Executive of channel 4, with a copy to Sir George Russell, Chairman of the ITC:


Dear Mr Grade, We imagine that you cannot but be as shocked and distressed as are people all over the world by the tragedies now being experienced in the Middle East and, of course, in Rwanda where nearly 2 million starving people are being subjected to dreadful violence and carnage.  It is against real life tragedies of this kind that your transmission as entertainment of obscenely brutal films such as 'Goodfellas' (10.4.1994) I attach a monitoring report) calls your judgement into question.  Shown at an hour (10pm) when many young people are still watching and against a background of increased social violence here in Britain, it was arguably the most violent, obscene and blasphemous film ever seen on British television.  We are not, of course, arguing a direct link between the screening of such films and the events in Rwanda.  We are arguing that such transmissions de-sensitise us all and make us that much less prepared to respond positively to the dangers in which others including many children exist.  Last month you attacked the use of crime reconstruction programmes as ratings winners.  Why, therefore, do you apparently approve grossly violent films as ratings winners?  Please tell us where you stand.


One can only hope that both Michael Grade and Sir George Russell will accept that they are in a very privileged position from which they can make a positive contribution to the solution of one of mankind's most urgent problems.  While we must be grateful for the fact that both the ITC and the BBC are, according to press re[ports this week, "Bowing to public pressure" and are carry out "full scale surveys" of the violence in their programmes to present to heritage secretary, Rt Hon Peter Brooke MP, I should tell you that we have presented Mr Brooke with a dossier of National VALA's monitoring of programmes on both channels, including the ones to which I have referred.


I should say that our monitoring demonstrates that such violence is by no means exceptional which leads one to the conclusion that not only the broadcasters themselves but also the governing bodies responsible believe that we, as viewers, have become so de-sensitised that we have no fight left in us.  We will have to demonstrate otherwise.  It is abundantly clear that as of now neither the Governors of the BBC or members of the ITC are prepared to make a reality of the responsibility laid by law upon them.  I am going to suggest, therefore, that everyone present here today sends a copy of the letter we are sending to Michael Grade and of the details of 'Goodfellas' available on the bookstand direct to their MPs and to the editor of your provincial and local paper informing him of what you have done.


In addition to the problem of physical violence there is the one of verbal violence of which the BBC film 'Cadillac Man' transmitted last month at 9.55pm is an example.  It would be entirely out of place for me to quote here the flood of obscenities which characterise it but copies of the report are also available for you to send to your MP.



ut now I come to the matter of my retirement as president of National VALA.  I never thought the day would come, so why?  First of all, it has to be said that age and health have played a key role.  Ernest is now eighty one and I am eighty four in a couple of weeks and it really has been nothing short of a miracle that we have both been able to work often a twelve hour day or more week in the week out without setting limits on what we did or how far we travelled.  Suddenly things have caught up with us and in particular as far as I am concerned the pain and discomfort caused by the fracture of my spine.


Could it be, I asked myself, and then Ernest, that the Lord is trying to tell us something?  Are we meant, in the years we have left, to spend more time together, discover more fully the beauties of the wonderful Constable country in which we live and spend more time with the family?  It would not mean, we tell one another, that we would cut ourselves off from the work of national VALA or that the organisation itself would be in any way diminished.  Far from it!  I can foresee more, not less, people taking responsibility as is already happening with more spokesmen and women becoming experienced in the art of public speaking and instant comment.  And here in particular I want to mention John Beyer, General Secretary or Nation VALA.  He has been as they say and certainly I do 'worth his weight in gold'.  His clear mind, gift of immediate recall, no matter how long the time involved, his loyalty and total integrity lie at the core of our success and I would like to see him carrying more responsibility as he has already so successfully done in the last few difficult months.   But he of course has not been the only one.  Members of our Executive Committee, of our branches, countless individuals including so many of you here today, have over the years been bravely and imaginatively committed to the work and that has been wonderful, without them all none of the miracles of the last thirty years would, or could, have happened.  Bless them.


And me?  I am both impressed and grateful for the Lord's timing.  I had no idea when I began writing my autobiography before the accident to my spine, now seven years ago, that the book would have to be put on ice for so long but this allowed much more material to be included!  Neither did I have the faintest idea that its publication would coincide so closely with the announcement of my forthcoming retirement as President at this convention and tragically, with the murder of little James Bulger which so moved the hearts and consciences of us all and brought TV and video violence to the very forefront of public concern.


Quite remarkable, really, and I feel the move is positive rather than negative.  There are now countless people in this country and abroad to whom the challenge to get involved is an increasing reality.


While our campaign over the years has seen the passing of the Child Protection Act, the Video Recordings Act, the Indecent Displays Act and the establishment of the Broadcasting Standards Council and the bringing of broadcasting under the Obscene Publications Act, form which it was originally excluded, there remains, it appears to me, one final hurdle of great significance.  I refer to the need to make effective the present Obscene Publications Act or rather introduce fresh legislation.


Throughout all our years of campaigning the ineffectiveness of that Act with its clause demanding proof of "a tendency to deprave and corrupt" has not only eaten away our efforts but, more importantly, allowed the pornographers almost free run in which incalculable harm in the lives of countless people, including children, has been wrought.


I declare, here and now, that I intend with Ernest's approval, to dedicate whatever time I have left to the creation of effective obscenity law.  We already have the Prime Minister's sympathy for our endeavours in this field but that is not enough.  We need his commitment to the clause and I am currently seeking an opportunity to meet with him to express how vitally important it is that the Government should take positive action in this field.


I may be retiring as President but I am not backing away from the fight to which I committed myself all those years ago.  By simplifying my commitments I shall, hopefully and in faith, be able to concentrate on what is arguably the biggest and most important battle of them all.


May the Lord be with us all!


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