David Starkey: Race, riots and censorship

By John Atherton

During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. Why are some viewpoints simply unsayable? 

David Starkey, arguably the most respected historian in Britain, went on television last week and committed what The Guardian has called in a live blog “career suicide”.

Being interviewed on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight, Starkey committed the ultimate crime: he dared to suggest that race, and specifically black culture, may have played a part in the London riots of the previous week – riots started by the police shooting of a black gang member.

In this article I am not concerned with whether or not Starkey’s analysis is correct, or stands up to scrutiny: readers can use their own experiences, and the video and images of the events, to draw their own conclusions one way or the other.

What I am concerned with is something far deeper: it seems that in modern Britain there are some things that cannot be said; some observations that cannot be seen; some thoughts that cannot be thought.

George Orwell, whose classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four deals with the manipulation of thought, once wrote:

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

For readers who are not familiar with David Starkey, he studied at the University of Cambridge, lectured at the London School of Economics, has been a regular guest on BBC Radio 4 and has had several highly successful television series. In short, he has serious credentials as a respected thinker.

As an open Homosexual man, he is surely no stranger to prejudice.

So when he chooses to speak, in a manner that suggests prior thought and consideration, he has earned the right to at least be heard. Yet the worrying nature of today’s political discourse is that as soon as his thoughts turn to race, he is drowned out. Other contributors on Newsnight began to shout him down, and would not let him finish his point, with no real attempt from the presenter to allow him space to reach a conclusion.

The BBC itself, after the broadcast, was falling over itself to defend the presenter. A spokesman for Newsnight said, “I think that Emily Maitlis very robustly challenged David Starkey.” This language is highly revealing. Were any other points of view “robustly challenged”? Would an interviewee suggesting that the riots were down to poverty be “robustly challenged”?

Let us not forget that these views were not those of an ignorant, uninformed man, but a learned academic with knowledge of this subject (which is presumably why he was being interviewed in the first place). When confronted with a fellow interviewee saying that black people were more likely to be stopped and searched by police, Starkey countered with facts, saying that 80% of gun crime in London is carried out by blacks. Again, this is not casual racism, but a fact-based intellectual approach.

George Orwell again:

“The most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.”
The wider media is also complicit in this air-brushing of history. The Guardian, like the BBC, has chosen to show mainly white rioters in its coverage of the disturbances. It seems that only the Daily Mail – a newspaper believed by some to be racist, despite its strong fight against the alleged murders of black teenager Stephen Lawrence – has taken a more mixed approach to its coverage.

So why this industrial-scale denial of discussion, this suppression of thought, this selective presentation? Who is scared? And what are they scared of?

When it comes to issues of race, it seems that the elephant must stay in the room – and David Starkey, who saw the elephant, must leave.

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