Anita Singh, Telegraph (London), August 26, 2011
More than 100 historians have signed an open letter expressing their dismay at Starkey’s controversial comments on the riots during an appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight programme.
They asked the BBC to stop referring to Starkey as a “historian” on anything but his specialist subject, the Tudors, claiming that he is “ill-fitted” to hold forth on other topics.
Signatories to the letter include academics from Cambridge and the London School of Economics, institutions at which Starkey once taught.
Starkey’s Newsnight appearance caused outrage earlier this month when he was asked about the cause of the riots and replied: “What has happened is that a substantial section of the chavs . . . have become black. The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.”
In a letter to the Times Higher Education magazine, the collective of 102 academics said: “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.”
The letter asked why the BBC had invited Starkey to discuss the riots when his academic research and published works have nothing to do with the subject.
“In our opinion, it was a singularly poor choice,” they said, adding that “the poverty of his reductionist argument . . . reflected his lack of understanding of the history of ordinary life in modern Britain. It was evidentially insupportable and factually wrong.
“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.”
Among the signatories are Paul Gilroy, professor of social theory at the London School of Economics; Steven Fielding, professor of political history of at the University of Nottingham; Richard Grayson, professor of 20th century history at Goldsmith’s, University of London; and Tim Whitmarsh, professor of ancient literatures at the University of Oxford.
Others come from as far afield as Harvard, the University of Winnipeg in Canada and Jawaharlal Nehru University in India.