Mary Whitehouse and the permissive society

17 August 2022

Emily Bourne, Education Team Assistant, reflects on the career of Mary Whitehouse, teacher and Christian campaigner, and how her legacy has affected the society we live in.
Emily studied History and Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, and wrote her dissertation on Whitehouse’s campaigning.

The Propaganda of disbelief, doubt and dirt poured into millions of homes through the television.”[i]

Whilst you would be forgiven for thinking that this quote is referring to the content of many programmes being broadcast today, it is actually from a manifesto published in January 1964 by the Clean Up TV Campaign.

When this manifesto was published, few people would have heard of Mary Whitehouse – she was just one of several concerned citizens who had pledged to make a stand against the increase of violence, bad language and nudity on television programmes. But in the course of just a few months, she would become a household name. The Clean Up TV Campaign became the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVALA) and, as its president, Mary Whitehouse was a constant presence on television and radio throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as she sought to bring “a moralising voice in an age when those whose traditional function had been to deliver such improving messages – from politicians to churchmen – seemed reluctant to do so.”[ii]

It was after a speech at Birmingham Town Hall in May 1964 that Whitehouse emerged as the figurehead of the Clean Up TV Campaign, and later the NVALA. In a way which other speakers at the event had not been able to do, Whitehouse captured the attention of the crowds and galvanised them into action with this assessment of society at that time:

“We realise that we have abdicated our wider responsibilities in the tired years after the War. Young enough to realise the fun we’d missed, part of an affluent society coming to terms with so much, we failed to grasp at what was slipping unnoticed through our comfortable fingers – our children’s and our nation’s future. It is to do what we may to right this wrong that we have thrown overboard our anonymity to come out and fight!”[iii]

Unacceptable – culpable – silence

Whitehouse was undoubtedly motivated by her Christian faith and yet she was often critical of the Church for “its abdication in the face of the intellectual/humanistic control of the media” and the “unacceptable – culpable – silence of certain leaders and sections of the Church” on issues of morality.[iv]

Before she began campaigning full time, Whitehouse was an art teacher. She recalled a pupil telling her that, after watching a programme about pre-marital sex on television, she believed it was acceptable to have intercourse with her boyfriend as long as they were engaged. What made this even more appalling to Whitehouse was that the panel had consisted of, amongst others, a Bishop’s wife and a clergyman. She was outraged by “the refusal of those who might be expected to be clear and able spokesmen of the Church to commit themselves to a firm position on right or wrong.”[v]

The impact of the Church’s failure to take a clear stance on issues of morality over the decades is now being seen today in many of our legal cases. In 2018, Dr David Mackereth was sacked as a medical assessor for the Department for Work and Pensions after refusing to identify hypothetical clients by their chosen gender instead of their biological sex. In October 2019, Employment Judge Perry handed down a ruling which said that Dr David Mackereth’s belief in Genesis 1:27 was not a belief protected by the Equality Act 2010 and was “mere opinion” and “not worthy of respect in a democratic society.

The failure of the Church over the past decades to teach about and uphold the clear Biblical position on marriage, sexuality and gender means it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that there is one single, consistent Christian view on this issue. People who call themselves Christians come up with their own interpretations on what the Bible says and even church denominations are increasingly trying to hold together radically different views under one umbrella.

As the Church of England discusses the outcomes of its Living in Love and Faith Project, there is concern it will follow the decision of the Church in Wales to bless same sex ‘marriages’. This trajectory means there will be difficult decisions ahead for those who want to remain in the Church of England but also remain faithful to Biblical teaching.

Protecting children

It is clear even from her very first speeches that Whitehouse was especially concerned for the welfare of children and that society had a responsibility to ensure that they were not exposed to content that would be inappropriate for their age. This was why so much of her work centred around television because she understood that children naturally absorb information and copy behaviour from the things they see and hear around them.

The 1980s saw the emergence of so-called ‘video nasties’. These video releases, which typically contained scenes of horror and violence, were able to avoid classification due a loophole in the law. Whitehouse quickly realised that the unregulated nature and easy accessibility of this market meant that children were in danger of being exposed to violent and sexually explicit content.

Whitehouse wrote to MPs asking whether they would introduce or support a bill to ensure that videos were properly classified based on age appropriateness because “there is no way that children and young people can be protected from exploitation unless Parliament acts to do so.”[vi] The result was the Video Recordings Act which made it an offence to supply videos to individuals who are (or appear to be) under the age of the classification designated.

However, we have seen that children continue to be in danger of being exploited and sexualised by (currently) unregulated services such as Netflix. The streaming service sparked controversy in 2020 when it released the film Cuties, a drama about an 11-year-old who joins a dance group. Although its maker said it was meant to tackle the issue of sexualisation of young girls, the promotional poster of 11-year-old girls in skimpy outfits and in sexualised positions undermined this somewhat.

Even in schools and libraries, which should be safe places for children to learn key life skills, we are seeing a normalisation of sexual and LGBT themes with such things as Drag Queen’s reading books to children and teaching them to twerk. As the Church vacates areas of national life, such as the education and welfare of children, where it has historically had such an impact, then other organisations will seek to fill this space with their agendas and ideologies. If, in forty years, we have gone from the problems of ‘video nasties’ to more than half of 11-13 years saying they have seen porn online, then we have to be prepared for even more shocking cases, stories and statistics if nothing more is done.

Right to fear the sexual liberation

There is perhaps some hope as society is now starting to re-evaluate what Mary Whitehouse had to say. Although ridiculed at time, when it comes to the issue of pornography, all sorts of people who would not have expected to do so now find themselves agreeing with her. The universal accessibility of pornography through the internet, the lack of safeguards to prevent children accessing the content and the treatment of women in this industry has caused people to see Whitehouse’s warnings in a new light and even accept that she was right to fear the sexual liberation of the 1960s.[vii]

The campaigning career of Mary Whitehouse serves as a reminder that opposition to those who stand for Biblical truth is nothing new. However, with the rise of cancel culture, it can feel overwhelming – as if the trajectory is only going one way and making it virtually impossible for a Bible-believing Christian to have any place in public life. But the ultimate trajectory for society is one of redemption and restoration as God will ultimately bring about His new world order.

We can only pray that as we are faithful ambassadors for Christ, individuals and institutions will realise the need to repent and submit to Jesus as Lord now, and work to create a better, more godly society before Jesus returns.

As the new school year starts, make sure you know what your children are being taught when it comes to Relationship and Sex Education and your rights to challenge this if you are concerned that it is not age-appropriate or in line with your faith. We are seeing some politicians speaking out against the content of these lessons so, like Whitehouse, you should look to engage your local MP on these issues.

Why not ask your church leader whether they would consider inviting a member of our team to speak in your local area. God may not be calling you to be the next Mary Whitehouse – but, like Whitehouse, He is calling you to be unashamed as you serve him in the context He has placed you in.

In addition to her own books, the NVLA Archive can accessed by arrangement with the University of Essex. A helpful, though not uncritical, introduction to Whitehouse’s campaigning can be found in Ben Thompson’s book Ban This Filth! Mary Whitehouse and the Battle to keep Britain innocent.

[i] Extract from the Clean Up TV Campaign Launch Brochure, ‘The Manifesto’, 1964,

[ii] Quotation from Ben Thompson’s Ban This Filth! Mary Whitehouse and the Battle to keep Britain innocent (Faber and Faber Ltd, 2013)

[iii] Extract from Mary Whitehouse’s speech at the launch of the Clean Up TV Campaign, 5 May 1964

[iv] Quotation from Mary Whitehouse’s autobiography Quite Contrary (1993)

[v] Quotation from Who Does She Think She Is?, a book by Mary Whitehouse (1971)

[vi] Extract from a letter sent by Mary White to all Members of Parliament, 16th March 1983

[vii] See Ben Thompson’s Ban This Filth! Mary Whitehouse and the Battle to keep Britain innocent


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