This article will feature in Issue 34: Protest and Revolution (November 2019)
Mary Whitehouse was a social conservative campaigner who set her sights on the ‘permissive society’ – the liberalising of social norms – that, she believed, was exposing children to more sex and violence on television. A lot of her work was done throughout the 1960s with her Clean Up TV campaign. She struggled somewhat, however, as her main target, the BBC and their director-general, Sir Hugh Greene, were taking steps to modernise television and ignored many of Whitehouse’s complaints. While Whitehouse was often mocked, she gained notoriety, and success, in many high-profile cases.
One of those cases saw her resurrect the common offence law of blasphemous libel to bring a private prosecution of Gay News magazine. There had not been a prosecution involving this law since 1922. The magazine had published a poem – ‘The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name’ by James Kirkup (1976) – depicting a Roman soldier having sexual fantasies about Jesus Christ’s body.
The trial, Whitehouse v Lemon, took place in July 1977. Alongside the obvious explicitness, the case was also notable for a series of omissions. The defence was not allowed to address the jury at the beginning of the trial, even though this was the general practice. The judge, Justice King-Hamilton, did not allow for theological experts to speak on behalf of the magazine who, due to the conflicting beliefs in Christianity, may have cast doubts on the blasphemy accusation. The defence were also not allowed to have literary experts help prove their claim that, as a piece of literature, the poem could be read in numerous ways.
Due to these omissions, the case ultimately became about the jury’s visceral reaction to the poem. The intentions behind the poem were not taken into consideration – the case became a question of homosexuality itself. John Smythe, the prosecutor, stressed how important morality was in the case and was a test of whether or not “anything is to remain sacred”. The jury agreed with his sentiment and returned with a guilty verdict. The verdict led to a fine for the magazine and nine month suspended sentence for the editor of Gay News, Denis Lemon.
The outcome of the case showed that the population had not given up their traditional conservative values, despite the sexual and cultural revolution of the 1960s. There had been steps taken to liberalise the law, such as the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in England 1967, which was progressive enough that gay rights groups felt it was the right time to set up a publication like Gay News (1972). A more ‘permissive’ media and changes in the law did not mean a change in attitude nor a decline in the importance of religion. Christianity, and a set of traditional moral values which it was associated with, still dominated the outlook of most Britons.