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Mary Whitehouse, 91; Led British TV Cleanup

November 26, 2001|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

LONDON — Former schoolteacher Mary Whitehouse, whose dogged 30-year campaign against TV violence and sexual exploitation made her a household name in Britain, has died. She was 91.

Whitehouse, a good-natured woman who became the scourge of British broadcasters, died Friday at a nursing home in Colchester after a long illness.

During the social turmoil of the 1960s, Whitehouse believed that relentless violence on television led to a violent society, and that the exploitation of sex was destroying Britain's moral fiber.

To some, she was a crank, a busybody or a puritan. But to others, she was an admirable figure fighting to hold back a tide of smut about to engulf Britain.

"The very last thing I want to do is to impose my wishes and thoughts on anybody," she said. "I don't think that to stand up and say what one feels puts an imposition on anybody."

Whitehouse tangled repeatedly with the British Broadcasting Corp., whose early evening sex-education program triggered her Clean Up TV Campaign in 1964.

Her organization became the National Viewers' and Listeners' Assn. the following year, and she acted as its president until 1994.

Lord Grade, former controller of BBC1, said Friday that "she and I debated the length and breadth of the land over the content of television. But I honestly don't think she had any effect."

He had warm memories of his white-haired nemesis.

"She was very witty, she was a great debater, she was very courageous, and she had a very sincere view, but it was out of touch entirely with the real world," he told BBC Radio.

Former Conservative legislator Harry Greenway, a longtime Whitehouse supporter, disagreed with Grade's judgment that she was ineffectual.

"She was, on the contrary, highly effective in highlighting what she considered wrong with television, and a lot of people sat up and took notice of her," Greenway said. "She was an honest and fearless woman who did valuable work."

Born June 13, 1910, and married to Ernest Whitehouse in 1940, she was an art teacher and, in the early 1960s, also taught sex education to high school girls.

It was the sex education class that sparked her post-retirement campaign. As senior mistress, she heard a girl say after watching a television discussion, "Now I know what's right. I must not have intercourse until I am engaged."

Whitehouse said that comment "brought home to me the tremendous power of the tube. Here was a normal, healthy girl who with a few words had been won over to a sub-Christian way of living. I had to do something about it."

Efforts Led to Laws and Watchdog Group

At the time Whitehouse set out to clean up TV in the mid-1960s, British television demonstrated more restraint in violence than American television because of the respective codes for broadcasters at the time.

But British "telly" was far more liberal than its U.S. counterpart in the treatment of sex. British shows presented brief glimpses of frontal nudity, earthy language in cartoons, and dramas so frank about abortion and adultery they were compared to X-rated motion pictures.

Quickly dubbed "Cleanup Mary," Whitehouse protested a TV play about back-street abortions, attacked a program poking fun at Boy Scouts, and complained to Lord Snowdon--then Princess Margaret's photographer husband--that his television film on old age promoted "mercy killing."

Shrugging off derogatory critics, Whitehouse said in 1970: "If we hadn't been around, think how much worse things would have been."

Her campaign had its successes, leading to stronger laws against the sexual exploitation of children and obscenity on television, and the establishment of a watchdog group to raise standards in broadcasting.

Her Books Related to Her Views on TV

Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, head of the Church of England, said Friday that Whitehouse had made "an enormous contribution to public life.

"Her belief that standards and decency were important brought her into conflict with some of the accepted norms of her day," he said. "But in her time, she spoke for many people who were disturbed at things they saw and heard."

Whitehouse was the author of a number of books related to her views on television: "Cleaning Up TV" (1966), "Who Does She Think She Is?" (1971), "Whatever Happened to Sex?" (1977), "A Most Dangerous Woman" (1982), "Mightier Than the Sword" (1985), and her autobiography, "Mary Whitehouse, Quite Contrary" (1993).

Whitehouse, whose husband, Ernest, died last year, is survived by three sons, Paul, Richard and Christopher.

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