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Mary Whitehouse re-visited

Committed to writing each week on a topic that relates to safeguarding, and how the Methodist Church in particular responds to the demands placed on it by the subject, can be a bit daunting, especially when trying to come up every time with a fresh angle. I do try not to repeat themes that have been recently covered, and I’m acutely aware that publishing yet another blog that concludes with reminding readers that safeguarding is ‘everyone’s responsibility’ can sound like a never-ending saga rather like ‘partygate’. But, as the prime minister is finding with the aforementioned Downing Street affair, the issues do not go away. Therefore, finding a way to maintain a positive interest in safeguarding becomes a top priority.

So, this week’s piece may or may not pique your interest. But the name Mary Whitehouse may prompt readers who recall her campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s about ‘filth’ on TV to pause and take a closer look. She died in 2001, but currently there seems to be a revisionist view of her work being put forward that suggests her fierce opposition to what she saw as the graphic portrayal of sex and violence on television, on the grounds of its potential negative impact on young people, was well made and prescient. Setting aside, for the moment, her evident homophobia, there is a sense that her concerns about the powerful influence of the media – not social then, of course – on the lives of young people, have proved correct to a large extent. Over the last few years, we have done much in the Church to draw attention to online abuse. ‘sexting’ and the sharing of inappropriate images, whilst stressing respect and explaining how to stay safe.

Mrs Whitehouse was a committed Christian and her faith and beliefs guided her in her mission, which she embarked upon with evangelical zeal. Opinion then was deeply divided about her campaign, and probably still is. But we now have substantial personal testimony from #MeToo, Everyone’s Invited (the campaign launched in 2020 to raise awareness of sexual abuse in schools) and the Ofsted 2021 review that followed, that confirms both the pervasive nature of online sexual abuse in schools and wider society and some of Mrs Whitehouse’s worst fears.

Wherever you stand on the Mary Whitehouse approval continuum, and given her homophobia would have been at considerable variance to the values that underpin the Methodist Church’s Justice Dignity and Solidarity strategy, it can’t be denied that the wellbeing of many young people has been adversely affected by their exposure to sexualised and violent imagery. Our protective and promotional work to safeguard young people must continue.

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