The BBC’s play Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story was a curious piece of revisionism from one of the main targets and victims of this smugly self-righteous lady’s ire. Obviously written and performed by people who had little knowledge and no direct experience of the 1960s, the arch-dragon of the ‘Clean Up TV’ campaign was portrayed as a slightly batty but well-intentioned and basically honest eccentric, while the BBC’s Director General, Sir Hugh Greene, was made out to be a degenerate, flippantly cynical buffoon. This is a travesty of the truth, and a strange abandonment of brand loyalty on the Corporation’s part.
As I can testify from bitter personal experience, Mary Whitehouse was far from being the paragon of truth and virtuous behaviour she claimed she was. In the late 1970s, Mrs Whitehouse and her ‘Moral Majority’ allies [several mostly Christian groups who campaigned for ‘family values’ and against what they disapprovingly termed ‘permissiveness’] kept up a ferocious onslaught against the Albany Trust, of which I was then Director, for many months on the utterly false ground that we were ‘promoting’ paedophilia.
This totally spurious charge was launched by Mrs Whitehouse in a widely publicised speech she made in November 1976, luridly claiming that the Trust [which she flatteringly but inaccurately described as “the homosexual lobby front runner”] was using public funds to ‘support paedophile groups’ so that “we are all subsidising and supporting, at least indirectly, a cause which seeks to normalise sexual attraction and activity between adult males and little girls”.
The same speech contained several other inaccuracies about the Trust; she quite wrongly claimed, for instance, that our Youth Officer – who was funded and supervised by the Department of Education and Science, and whose actual task was to work with teachers and youth workers on adult education programmes to tackle the difficult, and today still serious, problem of homophobia in schools and youth clubs - was “counselling gay teenagers” and spreading pro-homosexual propaganda through “pornographic magazines”.
There was not a shred of truth in these nasty smears. The facts were that the Trust, whose purpose was the improvement of psychological health, especially where sexual minorities were concerned, had been approached for advice by some paedophiles who felt acutely threatened and isolated by public hostility. In those days, the term ‘paedophilia’ was not yet perceived solely as a euphemism for ‘child molester’ [which it has since become, largely thanks to the hysteria generated by Mrs Whitehouse and her friends], but more precisely denoted the psychological condition of adults who were emotionally and – sometimes, though not always – sexually attracted to children who had not reached puberty. Such people obviously had a hideously difficult problem, and there was a dearth of skilled counselling help for them. So the Albany Trust convened some private meetings of concerned psychiatrists and other professionals, to which we also invited some of the paedophiles who had approached us, with the aim of exploring how to provide more adequate therapeutic and counselling facilities for those in need of it. The total amount of material help given to these people by the Trust was a few cups of tea.
Naïvely, as I realise with hindsight, we mentioned in our newsletter that these meetings had taken place. A few weeks later, Mrs Whitehouse launched her bombshell. Our first reaction – also, I now realise, naïve – was that she had been misinformed, and that when she realised this she would retract and correct her false allegations. So we wrote her a detailed letter, setting the record straight point by point, stating that we regarded her remarks as seriously libellous of the Trustees, individually and as a body, and requesting her co-operation in publicly withdrawing her assertions.
One would have expected somebody who was fond of loudly proclaiming her adherence to the ‘four absolutes’ of the Buchmanite Moral Rearmament sect – “absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, absolute purity, and absolute love” – gladly to seize the opportunity to make amends and set the record straight. But Mrs Whitehouse did nothing of the sort. Not merely did she sit back smugly while her allies repeated and embroidered her baseless charges against the Trust for many months through a flurry of articles and parliamentary questions; she never replied to the Trustees’ letter and, when pressed, said she “could not recollect” having received it [although it had been sent to her by recorded delivery]. Yet she contrived to quote it in a book which she published before the Trust made its contents public!
She even reiterated her preposterous charges in a heated exchange of letters between her, myself, and the Trust’s chairman in the Guardian, in the course of which she said: “for [the chairman] to deny an association between the Albany Trust and PIE [Paedophile Information Exchange] is to move the debate into such a realm of unreality as to make rational argument impossible.” To which he retorted “‘it is she who makes rational argument impossible by refusing to accept the truth if it doesn't suit her purpose”.
Which, for my money, is a just summing up of Mary Whitehouse. Far from being the lilywhite, if sometimes simplistic, crusader for truth, justice and decency perceived by her past and present admirers, she was an artful, devious and quite unscrupulous operator who had no qualms about inflicting totally unwarranted injustice and damage upon those whom she chose to dislike at the behest of her God. Claiming the loftiest Christian principles, she did not hesitate, when it suited her, to be a moral hooligan. Far from practising the high ideals of love and truth which she trumpeted forth, she more than once dragged the level of public debate down into the gutter, flinging blatant lies around with unctuous abandon.
That is how I shall always remember her – not as the cuddly, winsome figure of Julie Walters’ bland pastiche.
Thankfully she has gone, while the Albany Trust is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary.