Free speech is hugely important Part 2 (The Fighting Withdrawal of Mary Whitehouse)

In the light of my previous article on free speech and censorship, I’d like to talk about my hero: Hugh Greene, Director-General of the BBC in the 1960s. Instead of the Calvinist technocracy and high moral tone instituted by John Reith, Greene wanted to use the BBC as a forum to discuss current ideas, however controversial, and so open up public debate.  Thus, ‘a broadcasting organisation must recognise an obligation towards tolerance and towards the maximum liberty of expression’.  Greene thought that the BBC should be a ‘licensed gadfly’: its purpose was to challenge deeply held views of life and by doing so determine their worth. What mattered for Greene was not whether something was comfortable or worrying to the audience, but whether it was true to life and therefore reflected all its complexities.  Distortions of the truth stemmed from a biased view of life, either that it was uglier or blander than it was.  They were not only contrary to the BBC’s policy of intellectual impartiality; they were a perversion of reality, and therefore dangerous.  If people were forced to accept a myth rather than with the truth, as Greene had observed in both Nazi Germany and McCarthyist America, then intellectual freedom was stifled and tyranny followed.  In order to protect society, therefore, society had to be shown its true face.  Establishing truth and depicting life as it really was necessarily meant challenging certain comfortably held shibboleths and airing ideas that some would rather were safely buried. “Relevance is the key – relevance to the audience, and to the tide of opinion in society.  Outrage is wrong.  Shock may be good.  Provocation can be healthy and indeed socially imperative.” Greene’s bete noire was Mary Whitehouse, head of NVALA (the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association), a moral watchdog obsessed with morality, decency and protecting the Christian tradition of Britain.  Whitehouse believed that Greene’s pluralism and “determination to give the freedom of the screen to the protagonists of the new morality, to open the doors to foul language, blasphemy, excesses of violence and sex” had morally ruined the country.  Drama wasn’t set in nice middle class homes with decent Christian families!  Television panel programmes were filled with Communists and atheists and humanists, enemies of everything society held dear!  It was all a Russian plot to sap the moral fibre of the country, to make people dependent on pornography and self-gratification.  And what followed?  Young people were having sex—and enjoying it!  Girls were on the pill!  There were gay people!  And atheists!  And divorce!  The BBC, with its “propaganda of disbelief, doubt and dirt”, was responsible for the increase in “crime, violence, illegitimacy and venereal disease”.  This was a woman who thought that Doctor Who peddled humanist propaganda, that Tom & Jerry was violent, and that Four Weddings and a Funeral was obscene.  Censorship should ban everything except programmes that did not “offend against good taste and decency”—which, by the end of her life, meant only snooker, anything with the Queen in it, and (of all things) Neighbours. One of the strengths of a democracy is free speech.  Whitehouse could write a book about why other books should be banned; or appear on the BBC and say that the BBC was immoral, or have a debate with a humanist, when (if she were in charge) she would not let him speak, because there was only one right view: her own.  A liberal will see his opponent’s perspective, and let him speak, because he believes the best way of changing his mind is to expose him to alternatives and convince him rationally; the illiberal can only see his own perspective, and mistrusts anything outside his frame of reference. In one corner, a man who thought that free discussion of ideas would make people more liberal and tolerant.  In the other, a woman who thought that pluralism was a threat to society, and that censorship should impose moral certainty: one view imposed from above, rather than a society composed of individuals with their own views.  Let’s choose the former, and not let the latter prevail.

– Nick Fuller

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