John Major heaped fulsome praise on anti-obscenity campaigner Mary Whitehouse upon her retirement in 1994 and held a farewell meeting with her despite the misgivings of officials, previously confidential correspondence reveals.
Whitehouse stepped down as president of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA) after a decades-long crusade against violence and sexualised content. The then-prime minister granted her a farewell in-person meeting to mark the occasion at the end of July 1994.
In a letter acceding to her request for a meeting Sir John told Whitehouse: “Your campaign has played a crucial part in highlighting the widespread concern that we should not lower our standards of what is acceptable viewing on film, television and video; and you have been instrumental in warning of the perils if these standards fall.
“As you know, your work has led to new legislation in these areas. You yourself are one of the best examples of how it is possible in a free country like Britain for a private citizen with energy, initiative and commitment, to carve out a distinctive and valued niche in our national life.”
The letter, along with several written by Ms Whitehouse to the PM, forms part of a tranche of documents newly released to the National Archives under the 30-year rule.
They show how the conservative Christian campaigner lobbied the government hard for a stronger version of the Obscene Publications Act – to no avail, though her efforts were received with sympathy by Sir John – and peppered ministers with correspondence detailing exhaustively the sex and violence on television she believed was contributing to crime out in the world.
In their meeting, Sir John told Whitehouse of his worry that “children were now the masters of television and video technology and parents could not or would not stop them from viewing unacceptable material”, according to a No 10 memo. The PM also “recognised the difficulty which lay before us as the number of channels increased”.
The archive documents show Downing Street and Home Office officials believed that granting Whitehouse’s request for a farewell meeting with Sir John “would not be justified”, though one memo writer did chip in to say: “Mrs W has been a very steady supporter over the years (as long as I can remember). She surely deserves a mark of recognition after such a long and devoted career?”
Once the PM had offered to see her, the No 10 machine rolled into action, with a top aide warning that “she is of course likely to rehearse her well-known arguments on pornography and violence”, and ordering up “defensive briefings” to counter any criticism of the government.
In this instance, however, the Home Office failed to produce something usable despite a month’s notice. Declassified memos reveal fury in No 10, with private secretary Mark Adams demanding an explanation and adding: “In two and a half years at Downing Street, no department has ever failed to deliver a brief for the prime minister when asked. On this occasion, the Home Office came pretty close. Furthermore, as the brief which did arrive was far too long and unwieldy, it was never shown to the prime minister.”
Years later Adams, who served for six years in Downing Street under Sir John and Tony Blair, was convicted of two rapes and two sexual assaults.
Also revealed by the files is the persistence of Whitehouse’s campaigning and its support among rank-and-file Tories, who approvingly passed on her concerns to Downing Street, where they were, to an extent, shared.
Over time Whitehouse became an easy target of ridicule for her doomed campaign to clean up the airwaves. One archive letter shows she was incensed, for example, by Channel 4’s decision to screen Goodfellas at 10pm, “when it is known that countless youngsters are still viewing”.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s oeuvre appeared to be a particular source of disquiet, with the NVALA compiling and sending to No 10 blow-by-blow summaries of the gory parts of three Arnie films including Predator, whose titular monster she described as “a peculiar chameleon creature, half man and half boar/spider alien”.
“Prolonged firefight in gardens and house. Scores of men killed,” was NVALA’s ironically bloodless description of the climactic action sequence in Commando included in the released documents.
A more serious side to Whitehouse’s campaign was her concerted push for tougher action on sexual crimes against children, and her letters on this subject make repeat appearnces in the archive file. Sir John’s government did announce a crackdown on child sexual abuse imagery including jail time for possession, which in a letter to Whitehouse the PM called “an evil trade”.
Mary Whitehouse died in 2001, aged 91.