The Blog

David Starkey Has Failed us as an Intellectual

Beyond the obvious, there was something deeply troubling about David Starkey's appearance on Newsnight on Friday.

Beyond the obvious, there was something deeply troubling about David Starkey's appearance on Newsnight on Friday.

Giving a master class in excruciating ignorance the aging historian, almost bent double with his portentous fervour, delivered his assessment of the riots: 'the problem is that white people have become black.'

It made me wonder if nothing - not the finest education (he won a scholarship to Cambridge), towering intellect, nor great professional success is enough to protect a man from growing old and simply losing his grasp on the world.

Here was a man who has built a career as the country's most prominent authority in analysing the facts of the past to help us better understand the present, ranting about patois and implying that the entirely of black culture is encapsulated in 50 Cent videos. When fellow guest Owen Jones described his comments as 'career ending' afterwards, you almost hoped he was right for Starkey's case as much as ours.

But in his failure to detect any nuance behind the behaviour of young people beyond some pernicious cultural influences, Starkey didn't just let himself down, but the rest of us, too.

As part of rare sub-section of celebrity intellectuals, he had a responsibility to rise above the knee-jerk commentaries of the press and the simplistic emotional responses violence always stirs in the public. He ought to have landed a blow for rigorous, rational analysis, not spoken like a slightly more eloquent Richard Littlejohn.

There is always a point to be made about the limitations of ten minute TV appearances, and the tendency of the medium in general to cut, copy and paste people's comments into narratives we can all comfortably cheer or boo. The so-called high-brow areas of broadcasting can be as guilty of this as Big Brother.

But this didn't feel like a man being set up by a sneaky journalist, or not being given an opportunity to make his point. This felt like a respected intellectual in yet another foam-flecked television appearance delivering what could be the final blow to his reputation. He mentioned his role in the programme Jamie's Dream School in which he was challenged to mentor a group of teenagers, but appeared to have learnt nothing from the experience.

In it, he only got anywhere when he stopped lecturing and talking down to his class of insecure, angry young people and started listening to them instead. We saw a glimpse of the curmudgeon's humble, human side as he confronted the limitations of his wisdom in a situation he didn't fully understand.

In other words, he stepped back and tackled the situation with inquisitive calm of an intellectual, rather than the stubbornness of an arrogant old fool. It is a shame Starkey hasn't applied that same approach to this troubling and confusing chapter in our nation's history. We could have done with it.