Starkey's a celebrity, get him out of here

Pundit's Newsnight performance gave history a bad name, scholars write. Jack Grove reports

August 25, 2011

Credit: PA Photos
On-screen persona: letter says broadcasters book Dr Starkey for his 'tendency to make comments viewers find offensive'

David Starkey should not be referred to as a historian when he makes media appearances as a pundit on matters outside his area of expertise because it brings the "profession into disrepute", according to a letter signed by 100 of his peers.

In the letter in today's Times Higher Education, academics criticise the "reductionist argument" made by Dr Starkey during his recent appearance on BBC Two's Newsnight, when he said that the UK riots were caused because "the whites have become black".

Such a claim is "both evidentially insupportable and factually wrong", the letter says.

Particular ire is reserved for the BBC for introducing Dr Starkey as a historian when inviting him to comment on matters outside his historical specialism, which is British constitutional history in the Tudor period.

"The problem lies in the BBC's representation of Dr Starkey's views as those of a 'historian', which implies that they have some basis in research and evidence," the letter says. "As even the most basic grasp of cultural history would show, Dr Starkey's views as presented on Newsnight have no basis in either. His crass generalisations about black culture and white culture...would disgrace a first-year history undergraduate.

"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."

The signatories call on broadcasters to "think carefully before they next invite David 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".

Dr Starkey remains a Bye Fellow at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he undertakes occasional teaching.

However, he retired from lecturing at the London School of Economics in 1998, citing boredom and clashes with the institution as the reasons for his departure.

Dubbed "Britain's rudest man" for his blunt comments, he became one of the UK's highest-paid television presenters in 2002 after signing a £2 million deal with Channel 4 for 25 hours of programming.

The signatories to the letter include Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham; Paul Gilroy, Anthony Giddens professor in social theory at LSE; and Guy Halsall, professor of history at the University of York.

Colleagues from universities in Europe, North and South America, India and Africa also signed, and there are seven signatories from Lancaster University, which awarded Dr Starkey an honorary degree in 2004.

The letter also accuses Dr Starkey of showing a "lack of professionalism" on Newsnight, claiming he "simply shouted down" criticism.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph last week, Dr Starkey denied his views were racist and said he had criticised "a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture that has become the fashion...(and) militates against education".

He did not respond to THE's request for comment.

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