Reality check

28th October 2011 at 01:00

David Starkey is such an ass. Sorry, I forgot the adjective. David Starkey is such a pompous ass. It's not just me saying it, either. As of last week I can produce 20 grown-up witnesses in the form of my tutor group to back up that verdict on the popularising historian and TV pundit. I teach study skills to this group and have to generate my own content, which isn't always easy, so this summer's riots handed me some juicy "content" on a plate.

My students come from south London, and the events of 6-10 August were played out in their backyards. Not surprisingly, they have strong views on the subject; but the challenge I was laying down for them was to put aside their opinions and concentrate on the facts. As would-be social scientists, I emphasised, they would have to learn to replace subjectivity with objectivity. I knew I would test this to the limit in choosing the YouTube video of Starkey's post-riot performance on Newsnight for a practice note-taking activity. The class are the usual cosmopolitan inner-city mix, with - in this case at least - the majority coming from African and African-Caribbean backgrounds.

In case you didn't catch it at the time, Starkey's line on the programme was that one of the key causes of the riots was what he called "black culture". This he characterised as a gangster culture: "... violent, destructive (and) nihilistic".

He further argued that white kids - whom he called "chavs" - had in turn adopted this destructive set of behaviours, and thus the whites had "become black". In other words, chaotic and mindless violence was the "black" way of doing things, and now the whites were at it, too.

At the beginning of his remarks, Starkey quoted from Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech, saying that in one sense, at least, the ex-minister's prophecy had been "absolutely right". Most of the students had never heard of him. They watched in silence as I showed them a section of Powell's infamous 1968 address. For them the flickering black-and-white images fell into the category of history - nothing to get excited about in the very different Britain of 2011.

But once Starkey was up on the Smartboard screen, I nearly had a riot of my own to contend with. To be fair, though, once the heat had subsided, they did have some very good - and objective - points to make. They noticed, for instance, how authoritatively he was speaking in an area where he patently had no authority at all. As a trained historian, wasn't he supposed to weigh the materials of his subject matter before making a pronouncement?

As one black student in his 40s put it: "I've read some of his books, and always watch his historical programmes on TV. But now I'm beginning to wonder how much of that I can trust, given how wrong he is on something I do know about."

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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