David Starkey was Framed

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In August, the television historian David Starkey was widely pilloried for his comments on the BBC’s Newsnight programme that that month’s rioting in Britain’s cities was the fault of ‘black culture’. Starkey suggested that the rioters were comprised of young people who had ‘ become black’ owing to the coarsening influence of American hip hop and gangster rap, and juxtaposed what he saw as its corrupting patois with the ‘proper English’ spoken by high-achieving blacks, such as the MP David Lammy, who could be mistaken for a white man if one closed one’s eyes and just listened to his voice.

The response was swift, with most commentators berating Starkey for racism and suggesting that his lucrative career making (essentially the same) television series about the Tudors (over and over again) was at an end. Right wing commentators, on the other hand, claimed that he was simply articulating a widely held view, previously censored by the media and political establishment.

But, what no one bothered to ask was what Starkey was doing on Newsnight in the first place. What would a Tudor historian have to contribute to a debate on the causes of contemporary urban unrest? A journalist of our acquaintance tentatively suggested that the editors might have invited him on since, as a historian, he might be able to provide some sense of a longer context. Yet Starkey is not at all that type of historian: the comings and goings of Henry VIII’s private life eclipsing any interest in popular revolt in his work.

No, the real reason Starkey was invited on was because he is a controversialist, one of those rent-a-quote ‘experts’ at whose name TV producers’ address books always seem to fall open. Students of the framing of Muslims will recognise the scenario where someone without any real qualifications or knowledge is invited to contribute to media discussions, not in the interests of throwing light on the topic, but rather with the intention to provoke an argument and (presumably) boost viewing figures.

This kind of shorthand has, of course, beset the coverage of Muslim issues for many years. Its appearance in other areas of journalism – and the increasingly adversarial and unenlightening nature of the bear pit atmosphere of programmes like Newsnight – suggest that the media continues to do a disservice to those very real discussions that need to be had about the causes of alienation and contention. Until editorial policies are made more rigorous, and until news programmes decide that presenting well-researched facts, rather than ill-informed opinions, is the task of a free media it is likely that people such as Starkey and the Muslims will continue to be framed.

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