Is it coz I is David Starkey?

By blaming last week’s events on the ‘blacking up’ of white culture, the posh historian jumped the shark.

David Bowden

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Originally coined in reference to a particularly preposterous scene in Fifties-set comedy Happy Days, ‘Jumping the shark’ is a piece of television idiom which has increasingly slipped into popular usage in recent years. In short, it denotes the moment when a long-running show becomes creatively exhausted and starts grasping around for any hackneyed idea to revive it. This week was quite possibly the week when the coverage of England’s riots jumped the shark. Or, if you will, David Starkey jumped the shark-ey.

After watching the police flounder on the streets last week, the media coverage has been visibly flailing in its attempts to develop a narrative in the riots’ aftermath. The competing claims for ‘mindless criminality’ versus ‘political response to cuts’ was never going to fool a public who can see the complexity of the problems going on in its backyard.

As has been noted for some time on spiked the default position for a disorientated political-media class has been to talk up the threat of the far-right BNP, with its cartoonishly villainous leader Nick Griffin acting as a useful hate figure. With Griffin barely able to hold on to his leadership after the party’s trouncing in last year’s General Election, however, Starkey’s much-discussed rant on Newsnight about the corrosive influence of ‘black culture’ (augmented by approvingly quoting Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech) provided a comforting moment for those across the political spectrum to rehash those same arguments. For those on the left he was an offensive racist to be denied a platform; for those on the right he was bravely ‘saying the unsayable’ and slaying the dragon of political correctness.

The Daily Mail once dubbed Starkey ‘the rudest man in Britain’, a label he clearly revels in. An eminent historian, specialising in the Tudor period and constitutional history more broadly, he is one of Britain’s most famous television dons and, through regular appearances on high-profile current affairs programmes such as Radio 4’s Moral Maze and BBC1’s Question Time, he undoubtedly plays the function of that dying breed: the public intellectual. In reality, he’s closer to a US-style shock-jock, enlivening a staid and conformist public sphere by being clever enough to offend all-comers. For modern liberals, his Ivory Tower elitism and snobbish conservatism summarises everything that is embarrassing and repellent about the traditional British establishment; his outspoken atheism and forthright celebration of the promiscuous gay lifestyle outrages traditional conservatives.

Throwing Enoch Powell into an analysis of inner-city riots marked by a distinct lack of ethnic tension, by claiming ‘the whites have become black’, felt like a particularly desperate act of contrarian showmanship. As comedian Jack Dee tweeted, he really was trying to convince you that ‘black is white’. Nothing better captures the sorry state of contemporary intellectual public life than the sight of one of Britain’s most eminent academics being reduced to a bald example of undergraduate cleverness. Yet, his childish provocations aside, his observation that what is more neutrally called ‘urban’ or ‘street culture’ contains more than a strand of the nihilism and alienation characteristic of last week’s rioting is more difficult to unravel.

As the slightly hip critic Lindsay Johns astutely noted this week, what is more alarming is the extent to which ‘ghetto grammar’ has been embraced by a weak educational and cultural elite, willing to co-opt youth culture to engage an increasingly disaffected audience but lacking the confidence to assert its own values and judgement. While Johns himself lapses into an instrumentalist defence of education, his essential point – that education is supposed to equip you with knowledge and critical faculties to engage with, rather than merely kick out at, the world – is a sound one largely lacking from other responses to Starkey.

It was a rather fortuitous bit of scheduling, then, that this week should mark Channel 4’s mini-season Street Summer, showcasing programmes on all manner of urban culture: from street dance and street sport to graffiti and rap. Broadcast at the same time as Starkey’s outburst, How Hip-Hop Changed The World was arguing that hip-hop helped black culture to find a positive voice in the white mainstream. An enjoyable rundown of 50 key moments in the development of hip-hop – the selection of Rakim as the greatest rapper of all time at least indicated that its makers had taste – it told a fairly uncontroversial narrative of hip-hop’s development from angry voice of disenfranchised urban youth to its explosion into popular consciousness through to the moral panic about ‘gangsta rap’ and the ‘East v West Coast’ gang wars.

That said, its tone was an odd mixture of corporate infomercial and educational resource. Its treatment of UK hip-hop came across as an advertisement for its role in the creative economy and as cultural ambassador for Britain on the world stage. In depicting how rap crossed over to the mainstream, it entirely (if understandably) glossed over the unholy creation of nu-metal, where rap’s vibrancy and anger was put to the service of genuinely nihilistic grunge-rock whining. It fussed over whether contemporary hip-hop was too obsessed with greed and consumerism, which really did show you how mainstream it had become. And it only briefly mentioned Public Enemy and NWA. It was a short history of rap with all the fun and interesting parts taken out.

In the course of one evening’s viewing last Friday, it felt like we were getting a microcosm of the community engagement debate which is going to run and run in the aftermath of this summer: Starkey’s ‘black culture bad’ versus Channel 4’s ‘street culture good’. Both approaches feel painfully superficial in tackling the problems represented by the riots, but only Starkey’s was dismissed out of hand. He was right that the current debate needs more ‘frank speaking’ – if only to tell people they’re wrong, rather than decry them as ‘offensive’. If we learn nothing from this summer’s chaos other than that we urgently need a better and more open standard of public debate, then it’ll at least be a good start.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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