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How Valid Is Mary Whitehouse’s View That the Media Was Responsible for a Decline in Moral Standards in the 1960s-1970s?

By almasmia Feb 27, 2013 1225 Words
The English social activist Constance Mary Whitehouse was often renowned for her opposition to social liberalism and mainstream media, which she often claimed to be root cause of a more permissive society in Britain. Although, the extent to which we can deem this view valid is debatable. There is evidence leaning on both sides of the argument; but of course it is unquestionable that Britain did see a sudden uprising of permissiveness and overt moral decline to which Whitehouse responded briskly, founding and setting up the ‘National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association’ via which she campaigned against the BBC n the 60’s. The question is; was she justified in going to these lengths to essentially try and censor media? Surely, if she injected such a vast amount of effort into doing so, then she must have some sort of validity in her view? Or perhaps, there were other factors which she did not take into account.

The notion of Television being the main medium of influence of this period is irrefutable, with 95% of British households owning one by the end of the 1960s. Although the fact that the government set up the Committee of Inquiry on Broadcasting could in itself suggest that media had partial censorship (thus disallowing any real explicit broadcasts which could lead to a moral decline), they did little to stop, and actually welcomed the hard-hitting ‘social realist’ plays such as ‘up the junction (1965)’ and ‘Come Home Cathy (1966)’, as they were a replacement for the supposedly ‘vulgar’ American style programmes on ITV such as ‘Take Your Pick (1958-66)’ and the Westerns/Crime Dramas which they feared would erode British culture and make people more violent. Though, these plays did could be argued to have ‘worsened’ the situation as, for example, ‘Up the Junction’ depicted quite a graphic and powerful home abortion scene, and it is suggested that this may have been one of the causes of the 1967 Abortion Act to be passed; which of course consequently lead to relaxation in attitudes towards sex as there was now an passage, or a ‘life-line’ a woman could use if any accidental impregnation occurred, thus increasing levels of promiscuity. Furthermore, in ‘a taste of honey’ (also part of this social realism movement that swept through theatres in the 60’s), as well as abortion again being key factor in it, there is also an occurrence of a ‘one night stand’, not an ordinary one night stand however, an interracial one night stand. Although this was a very extreme case of moral rebellion, critically it could have lead to the British public to perceiving promiscuity as well as interracial relationships (seen as immoral, abnormal at this time) to be more acceptable, a norm. In other words, the British public would in theory be bellowing “if she can do it, why can’t I?!” . The Press also have a part to play in this; they contributed largely to a new permissive air in the media when they initiated their launch of colour supplements, sexualised adverts and scandalous news stories and significantly the first female nipple was published by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch who believed this would help the circulation of his paper, The Sun. This conveys the extent to which media was now overtly promoting permissiveness, and could suggest that this directly influenced a more permissive society as the public were fully exposed to these new developments which eased them into a new, more open and bold mind set.

Conversely, there is evidence to suggest that Media was not only responsible for the ‘decline in moral standards’, as quoted by Whitehouse. Touching back onto the subject of ‘press’, although it did absolutely encourage some air permissiveness, the Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964 to an extent conflict that view. These acts were designed to ‘strengthen’ law around public obscenity, in particular the publication of obscene articles and materials used in them. This could thus suggest that there were in fact some restrictions on media, and that they couldn’t possibly fully hold the blame for arousal of permissiveness and decline in moral standards in this period.

Additionally, although the ‘powerful’ scene in ‘Up the Junction’ could be blamed for the passing of the Abortion Act in 1967,it is commonly known that it only eased the passage of it, and it was primarily David Steel’s campaign that led the way to this debatably radical change. Prior to the Abortion Act, there were approximately 106,000 illegal abortions a year, and many were sceptical about the idea that the number of abortions would increase when the act was passed as they believed although people had the freedom, it wouldn’t necessarily mean they would exercise it. They were wrong, after a year in 1968 the number of abortions per annum rose by 35,000 to 141,000 a year. This strongly suggests that the Abortion Act itself influenced a more permissive and unmoral society as it offered more freedom to the public in regards to sex and promiscuity.

Prior to the passing of the Divorce Act of 1969, divorce was only permitted when there was sufficient evidence exhibiting that one party of the relationship had committed adultery, and statistics show that there were few than two divorces per 1000 married couples. The Divorce Reform Act allowed couples to divorce if they had lived apart for two years and both wanted it or if they had lived apart for five years and one partner wanted it. Following the reform there was a huge increase in the number of divorces, by the mid-1970s nearly one in every two marriages ended in divorce. Although it could be argued that this was due to the growing independence of women, it’s hard to deny that the act had a large effect on this. This thus indicates to us that media was not entirely responsible for the lack or decline of moral standards as legislation such as this, did essentially promote more promiscuity as it gave married couples the freedom to split up and do as they please.

In analysing the range of factors, we can conclude that Mary Whitehouse’s view that the media was responsible for the morale decline of the 60’s and 70’s was somewhat valid, as there are a spectrum of sources and pieces of evidence that intrinsically link together and in turn paint a picture where the British society are heavily influenced by media. This was perhaps due to fact that the public at this time, and still to this day, are heavily consumed by the media and are enthralled in its controversy, and although it may not have so much of a profound effect on us today it is obvious people of that period were more vulnerable to it as just coming out of a period of Austerity and slight deprivation, more likely than not they were seeking for something new something fresh, something that kept up with the social norms of other major influences such as America- and perhaps unfortunately, these new trends often entailed social rebellion and permissiveness. And although legislation had a part to play in it, this only ensured de jure change, not always de facto, where as media more times out of 10 had de facto and more profound effect on the British society of the 1960s/70s.

Almas Mia

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