In defence of David Starkey

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

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Topics Free Speech

The University of Cambridge’s latest promotional video, ‘Dear World… Yours, Cambridge’, features several of the institution’s best known alumni. David Starkey, Stephen Fry, Lily Cole, Stephen Hawking and Ian McKellen all feature in the video, talking about the inspiring research undertaken by scholars at the university. Last week, the short film was taken off the university’s website and then put back up again – only this time, it did not feature Starkey.

The film was changed in response to an open letter to the university signed by several hundred academics and students. They argued that Starkey was not an appropriate person to promote the university, because, in his role as media pundit, he has expressed personal opinions that the signatories consider to be racist and sexist.

David Starkey is famous for his controversial and provocative views; he is also a qualified and experienced historian. Journalist Lucy Mangan sums him up well: ‘He’s a turn. Sometimes a tiresome turn, sometimes an offensive turn, but always a bracing one. And when he brings his attention back to bear on matters historical rather than starting rucks on Question Time, the result is always fresh, exhilarating and illuminating.’ Like most people, she can see, and respect, the difference between Starkey’s personal opinions and his professional expertise.

This is not the case for Dr Malachi McIntosh, director of studies in the English department at King’s College, who said: ‘David Starkey is widely known for his racist, sexist and classist comments and because of that does not represent a community composed of people from all places and walks of life.’ Malachi’s colleague, Jeanne de Montbaston, similarly outraged that Starkey dares to express his personal opinions, likewise argued: ‘This video perpetuates an image of educational hierarchy, with Starkey pinning us with his gaze, breathing professorial authority, speaking sonorous RP [received pronunciation]… teaching, for goodness’ sake, using a chalk blackboard, like a relic of the good old days when closed scholarships kept Cambridge for the better class of young gentleman.’

What this outraged response ignores is that Cambridge is no longer the exclusive preserve of white, posh men. I wonder whether de Montbaston is more upset by Starkey’s views or the fact that he is male, has ‘professorial authority’ and speaks with an upper-class accent. You might think professorial authority would be a good thing in a university, but increasingly this seems not to be the case.

This sort of knee-jerk response has echoes of religious fundamentalism: ‘If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it far from thee.’ Hundreds of years of intellectual effort, moral courage and the willingness to offend have overcome the hold of such superstitious ideas and helped to create the modern university, a place where reason and its ideals of freedom and autonomy have been encouraged and developed. This should not be thrown away in the name of protecting people from offence. Of course, anyone can feel as offended as they like. Anyone who is offended by Starkey are free to answer back, ridicule him, or, better still, openly debate him. But they don’t have the right to demand that a university change its policies, curriculum or promotional videos on the basis of their hurt feelings.

By calling for the video to be censored, the petitioners are projecting a lowly view of individuals – apparently we can’t be trusted to hear all manner of ideas and make our own minds up. Universities are there to pursue the truth through scholarly work and teaching, not pander to the feelings of a vocal minority that prefers to censor rather than debate. The lack of protest at this blatant act of censorship does not bode well for academia or for those who support liberal democracy.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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Topics Free Speech

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