Starkey's ignorance is hardly work of history

August 25, 2011

In David Starkey's regular appearances on BBC's Newsnight, Newsnight Review and Question Time, he is introduced as "the historian, David Starkey", just as Emily Maitlis introduced him on the Newsnight discussion of the recent English riots. As a group of professional historians, academics and graduate students, we therefore feel it is reasonable to critique his contribution as that of a historian, rather than a celebrity.

According to the BBC, the aim of the discussion was to examine "the causes of the recent riots and looting". One might therefore ask the following question: if a historian is to be involved in a discussion of rioting in modern Britain intended to explore issues of race and class, why choose one whose education, research and publications are at such a remove from these topics? In our opinion, it was a singularly poor choice: Starkey has professed himself to be a historian of elites, and his academic work has never focused on race and class - in fact, he has rejected those approaches. We are thus unsurprised by the poverty of his reductionist argument, which reflected his lack of understanding of the history of ordinary life in modern Britain. It was evidentially insupportable and factually wrong.

In response to written complaints about the programme and Starkey's part in it, the BBC has asserted that it "is not Newsnight's job to censor the views of our guests; the programme would rather challenge them in a robust way on air, and allow viewers to draw their own conclusions". Elsewhere in this response, our attention is drawn to the way in which "Emily Maitlis directly challenged David Starkey's views on a number of occasions", and the fact that "guests Owen Jones and Dreda Say Mitchell clearly took exception to...Starkey's opinions and were given ample time and space to make their disagreements heard".

These issues are not in dispute. The problem lies in the BBC's representation of Starkey's views as those of a "historian", which implies that they have some basis in research and evidence: but as even the most basic grasp of cultural history would show, Starkey's views as presented on Newsnight have no basis in either. In particular, his crass generalisations about black culture and white culture as oppositional, monolithic entities demonstrate a failure to grasp the subtleties of race and class that would disgrace a first-year history undergraduate. In fact, it appears to us that the BBC was more interested in employing him for his on-screen persona and tendency to make comments that viewers find offensive than for his skills as a historian.

In addition to noting that a historian should argue from evidence rather than assumption, we are also disappointed by Starkey's lack of professionalism on Newsnight. Instead of thoughtfully responding to criticism, he simply shouted it down; instead of debating his fellow panellists from a position of knowledge, he belittled and derided them. On Newsnight, as on other appearances for the BBC, Starkey displayed some of the worst practices of an academic, practices that most of us have been working hard to change.

We the undersigned would therefore ask that the BBC and other broadcasters think carefully before they next invite Starkey to comment as a historian on matters for which his historical training and record of teaching, research and publication have ill-fitted him to speak. If his celebrity and reputation for giving offence still persuade producers that he is worth the money, we would not seek to censor him nor determine their choices: however, we would ask that he is no longer allowed to bring our profession into disrepute by being introduced as "the historian, David Starkey" when commenting on issues outside his fields of expertise.

Alun Munslow, professor of history and historical theory (UK editor, Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice)

Paul Gilroy, Anthony Giddens professor of social theory, London School of Economics

Derek Sayer, professor of cultural history, Lancaster University

Stephen Constantine, professor of modern British history, Lancaster University

Emma Alexander-Mudaliar, assistant professor, University of Winnipeg, Canada

Lucy Allwright, PhD candidate, University of Warwick

Catherine Armstrong, senior lecturer in American history, Manchester Metropolitan University

Jose Antony, PhD candidate, The Centre for the History of Emotions, Max Plank Institute for Human Development, Berlin

Alexana Bamji, Lecturer in Early Modern History, University of Leeds

Sarah Barber, senior lecturer, Lancaster University

Sara Barker, teaching Fellow in early modern history, University of Exeter

Crispin Bates, reader in modern South Asian history, University of Edinbugh

Lawrence Black, reader in modern British history, Durham University

Rob Boddice, research Fellow, Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University Berlin

Kate Bradley, lecturer in social history and social policy, University of Kent

Stephen Brooke, professor of history, York University, Toronto, Canada

Michael Brown, senior lecturer in history, Roehampton University

Daniel Budden, PhD candidate, Swansea University

Daniel Bye, University of Bedfordshire

John Callaghan, professor of politics and contemporary history, University of Salford

Nick Cleaver, PhD candidate, University of East Anglia

Debbie Challis, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London

Jonathan Davies, senior lecturer in Italian Renaissance history, University of Warwick

Rohan Deb Roy, postdoctoral research Fellow, University of Cambridge

David Doddington, PhD candidate, University of Warwick

Mehmet Dosemeci, INTERACT Fellow, Columbia University

Ian Duffield, honorary Fellow, University of Edinburgh

Sarah Easterby-Smith, postdoctoral Fellow, European University Institute, Florence

Jacqueline Fear-Segal, reader in American history, University of East Anglia

Catherine Feely, graduate teaching assistant, University of Manchester

James Fraser, senior lecturer in early Scottish history, University of Edinburgh

Steven Fielding, professor of political history, University of Nottingham

Catherine Forrester, MSc candidate, University College London

Jana Funke, associate research Fellow, University of Exeter

Nikolas Funke, DPhil candidate in history, University of Sussex

Rebecca Fraser, lecturer In American history and culture, University of East Anglia

William Gould, Senior Lecturer in Indian History, University of Leeds

Richard Grayson, professor of twentieth-century history, Goldsmith's, University of London

Daniel Grey, junior research Fellow in world history, University of Oxford

Steven Gray, PhD candidate, University of Warwick

Simon Griffiths, lecturer in politics, Goldsmiths, University of London

A. L. Gust, research associate, Five College Women's Studies Research Centre, US

Ali Haggett, research Fellow, Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter

Patrick Hagopian, senior lecturer in history, Lancaster University

Mark Hailwood, postdoctoral research Fellow, Institute of Historical Research and University of Exeter

Guy Halsall. Professor of History, University of York

Emma Hart, lecturer in modern history, University of St Andrews

Leanne Haynes, PhD candidate, University of Essex

Stephen Heathorn, professor of British history, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

Sophie Heywood, lecturer in French, University of Reading

David Hitchcock, PhD candidate, University of Warwick

Roisín Higgins, Boston College-Ireland, Dublin

Katrina Honeyman, professor of economic and social history, University of Leeds

Matt Houlbrook, lecturer in modern British history, Magdalen College, Oxford

Elizabeth Hutchin, PhD candidate, University of St Andrews

Michelle Johansen, visiting research Fellow, Raphael Samuel History Centre (University of East London, Bishopsgate Institute & Birkbeck, University of London)

Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of the Humanities, University of Leeds

Amy Kavanagh, MA candidate, University College London

Chris Kempshall, DPhil candidate, University of Sussex

Oeenila Lahiri, PhD candidate, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Claire Langhamer, senior lecturer in history, University of Sussex

Richard Langley, PhD candidate, University of Birmingham

Simon Layton, PhD candidate, University of Cambridge

Imogen Lee, PhD candidate, Goldsmiths, University of London

Rachel Leow, prize Fellow, Center for History and Economics, Harvard University

Caroline Lewis, PhD candidate, University of Edinburgh

Lemara Lindsay-Prince, master's of research student, University of East Anglia

Francesca Locatelli, lecturer in African history, University of Edinburgh

Anea Major, lecturer in wider world history, University of Leeds

Sarah Marks, PhD candidate, University College London

Emily Manktelow, teaching Fellow in colonial/postcolonial history, University of Exeter

Lucinda Matthews-Jones, lecturer in history, Swansea University

Wendy McMahon, lecturer in American studies, University of East Anglia

Diana Paton, reader in Caribbean history, Newcastle University

Daniel Peart, lecturer in American history, Queen Mary, University of London

Christopher Pelling FBA, regius professor of Greek, University of Oxford

Corinna Peniston-Bird, senior lecturer, department of history, Lancaster University

Lydia Plath, lecturer in American history, University of Glasgow

Sarah Richardson, senior lecturer in modern British history, University of Warwick

Emily Robinson, advance research Fellow, Centre for British Politics, University of Nottingham

Owen Robinson, Senior Lecturer in U.S. Literature, University of Essex

Laura Sangha, teaching Fellow in early modern history, University of Exeter

Steven Sarson, senior lecturer in history and Classics, Swansea University

Ben Schiller, lecturer in Anglo-American history, Teesside University

Uditi Sen, assistant professor, Hampshire College, US

Samantha Shave, research Fellow in history, University of Sussex

Tim Siddons, PhD candidate, University of Edinburgh

Gajena Singh, ERC postdoctoral research Fellow, University College Dublin

Deborah Sutton, lecturer in South Asian history, Lancaster University

Olivia Swift, senior research Fellow, Greenwich Maritime Institute

Rebecca Tillet, lecturer in American studies, University of East Anglia

Deborah Toner, postdoctoral research Fellow, Institute for the Study of the Americas University of London

David Turner, PhD candidate, Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History (University of York/National Railway Museum)

Brodie Waddell, Leverhulme early career Fellow, University of Cambridge

Clive Webb, professor of modern American history, University of Sussex

Tom Webster, lecturer in British history, University of Edinburgh

Tim Whitmarsh, professor of ancient literatures, University of Oxford

Jon Wilson, senior lecturer in British imperial and South Asian history, Kings College London

Pascal Venier, lecturer in French and international history, University of Salford

Erna von der Walde, lecturer in Latin American history and literature, Javeriana University, Colombia

Yoke Sum Wong, history, University of Lancaster

Benjamin Zachariah, reader in South Asian history, University of Sheffield

Natalie Zacek, lecturer in American history, University of Manchester

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