UK / Europe — 26 August 2011
Academics Respond to David Starkey

An open letter in today’s Times Higher Education supplement signed by 100 academics urges the BBC not to refer to David Starkey as a historian if used as a commentator on any issue other than his field of expertise (Tudor History). Starkey caused wide dismay in some quarters (while garnering support in others) when he linked the recent riots in England to the popularisation of black culture – at the time Dr. Abdul Wahid responded to Starkey’s comments in an article where he highlighted that “ chose to ignore the many other cultural expressions of degenerate behaviour, which utterly destroys his analysis of the causes of these problems being because of the rise in black culture.” (For the full article, click here).

The open letter follows a similar vein in that Starkey’s views are addresses as having no basis in cultural history, and his over-simplistic generalisations used in his reductionist argument were without academic merit. The letter also rightly points out that Starkey has no expertise or published research regarding the issue of social unrest in contemporary Britain, or race relations and so on, and therefore should not have been brought on to discuss the subject with other participants who were qualified (some of the letter is reproduced below).

Unfortunately, when it comes to issues of the Middle East, Islamic movements, and the current uprisings across the Arab World, uninformed talking-head commentators are run-of-the-mill, with many “experts” pontificating upon what is occurring abroad on the basis of having visited the region once or twice, or even having some personal experience of the region, but rarely do you find any credible, informed researchers or commentators being invited on to debate the most contentious of issues which are generally left to the “experts” residing in the host of “think”-tanks who emerged in the post 9/11 environment as providing “neutral” analysis (which generally happens to chide with the political views of their political patrons). While Starkey has largely been dismissed on this occasion, since even though the underlying assumptions of his discourse informs a section of the political mainstream his articulation was too extreme to be acceptable, until now there has been a lack of space for criticism of the “experts” on Islamic opposition.

[Part of the letter to Starkey is reproduced below]

“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 onNewsnight 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.”

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