This is a picture of the projection on the BBC’s Broadcasting House. Mary Whitehouse was famously blocked from appearing on the BBC during the 1960s because of her criticism of the corporation’s output which she believed was potentially harmful.
Last Tuesday evening, we projected images of Mary Whitehouse in locations all over London asking people to consider whether or not she was right all along. At the same time we released the results of new research which we commissioned to mark our anniversary. We wanted to know what the British public felt about the state of media, its impact on today’s society and whether the public feels confident that complaints about disturbing or unsuitable content are being dealt with effectively.
Our investigation found that, overwhelmingly, the public think programme makers and schedulers crossed the line in allowing increasingly inappropriate content to invade our screens. Everyone surveyed reported viewing inappropriate content before the watershed, including: violence, sexual activity, racism and offensive language. However, only 26% had actually done anything to express their dissatisfaction because they do not feel their voices are being heeded when they complain.
The highest percentage of complaints was made about sexual activity (47%), followed by offensive language (38%), violence (36%) and inappropriate adult issues such as drug taking, gambling etc (34%), all shown before the watershed. More people had complained about content involving sexual violence (33%) than about racism or other discriminatory content (21%). This would not have come as a surprise to Mary Whitehouse who said of television: “if it is sometimes a debasing influence, it could equally be a great ennobling force if we cared enough.”
When respondents were asked whether inappropriate content might have an effect on people’s behaviour, 94% believed that it could, citing violent horror, explicit sexual content, music videos and soap operas as particularly problematic. With such a high percentage of the public feeling that this kind of subject matter can be potentially harmful, Mediawatch-UK believes that broadcasters have a duty to take this more seriously.
Writing in 1977, Mary Whitehouse said: “What we are is inseparable from the cumulative effect of all that we have seen, read and experienced.” How prescient this seems now.
39% of those surveyed said they hadn’t bothered to make a complaint because they either feared that nothing would be done about it, they didn’t know whom to contact or sometimes they didn’t want to be seen as a ‘complainer’. They gave a number of reasons for this:
Of those that did complain, either to their media provider, TV station, the programme makers, OFCOM or via social media, 40% either received no response at all or were dissatisfied with the outcome. Many received a computer-generated form which was never followed up. Others felt strongly that if the body to which they had expressed their complaint had simply apologised they may have been satisfied, but they were denied even that small gesture.
OFCOM’s failure to regulate adequately in the past has led to what the regulator itself described as being ‘at the very margin of acceptability’ to become mainstream. Is it then any wonder that people are not making their views known about inappropriate broadcasts because they don’t think anything will come of complaining.
Many today would concur with Mary Whitehouse’s comment on the TV regulator: “Instead of the government providing a vehicle for the voice of the viewer, it has provided little more than a convenient means for the broadcasters to deflect criticism of their programmes.” It would appear that Mary Whitehouse was right after all.