Thursday, 18 August 2011

Starkey: Symptom of a wider problem in television

Thought it might be time to wade into the Starkey debate (has anyone named it Starkeygate yet?) Anyway, I want to ignore what he said for the purposes of this little blog. I think enough has been written about how out of touch and insulting it was, and plus I must follow that famous quote misattributed to Voltaire (I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.)
What I wanted to question was the train of thought of whoever selects the guests of Newsnight. I can see the sense of getting an historian on. A bit of historical perspective is always good. I am not convinced they needed a ‘marquee’ name to bring in audiences, but I can see why they might have decided to plump for a well known name. I would have thought, however, that the expertise of the guest might have been more of a pressing issue. Ideally, an historian of twentieth century rioting. Or perhaps of social uprisings or disorder in general. I have read good articles on the historical precedents for urban riots from both. So to select a specialist in early modern England seems odd. The fact that his specialism is a King, and not even those further down the social ladder makes him about as unqualified as you can get within history. Furthermore, this country is blessed with fantastic historians, who would have been far more suitable, many of them internationally renowned. The only excuse I can think of is that, due to deadlines, decisions were rushed, or perhaps those more suitable were unavailable at short notice.
The more I think about this, though, the more I saw an emerging pattern. It seems since I last lauded the efforts of the powers that be in television for expanding the ‘educational’ output on our screens, some worrying trends have emerged. Firstly if the rumours surrounding BBC4 are true, it would be ten steps backwards. Following on from the ‘miscasting’ of Starkey, however, there have in recent months been some very interesting choice of presenters. First case in point was Richard Hammond and his Journey to the Centre of the Planet. I can see the logic, Top Gear is very popular, and Hammond has made some pretty good shows on engineering, where he is in his element. But he was clearly out of his depth in this series, and it would have been much better served by an expert. Another example of this was the recent history of Britain (I regret to say I cannot remember its title) with none other than Alan Titchmarsh. The less said about that the better I would imagine.
That is not to say that all educational programmes without academics are worthless. Despite many criticisms about his TV connections, Dan Snow is doing an admirable job promoting history, and is well qualified (double first in history from Oxford) and is genuinely interested in the subjects he covers, which therefore creates fulfilling television. A further example is a show that really didn’t think I would enjoy, with another history graduate, this time from Cambridge, Michael Portillo. Great British Railway Journeys, which has been shown around dinner time, works well because Portillo is so enthusiastic about railways and the towns he visits. Key, however, is the use of talking heads. By interviewing local historians in each locale, Portillo never looks out of his depth, yet the programme remains detailed and interesting.
So, in conclusion, it is possible to make good television without making it only suitable for academics. But there needs to be more thought in the choice of presenter and ‘expert’, and not just plumping for the one who gets the most coverage, or who is currently en vogue.  


  1. Good post, Steve. The Starkey problem seems to be a recurring theme for Newsnight and other BBC political programs. It seems as though the producers and researchers are at a point where they think, "oh, we need a historian ... what about that controversial bloke, he'll do". Which is a shame because, as you say, there are plenty of more qualified historians to speak on these topics - but they're not as well known as Starkey. The same goes for the continual use of Kelvin McKenzie who has been used countless times by Newsnight and for general BBC interviews since the outbreak of riots. He is another one that seems to be picked because he is guaranteed to say something outrageous - as opposed to something useful and interesting.

    However, I must offer an argument on the side of the producers of these programs. From running my own political events company (Generation 2 Generation (sorry for the shameful plug)) I have experience, first-hand, of the dilemma of opting for the more well-know politician/journalist who, ultimately, will sell tickets, over the individual who might well offer a more in-depth debate. For the producers of Newsnight they obviously have to balance the viewing figures with the content of the show - and often the need for ratings will prevail.

    One more example I will add that highlights this debate is the recent BBC series, The Code. Admittedly it was not the BBC's finest hour (or three) but I can wager a bet that its lack of popularity was down to the fact that the presenter was an unknown mathematician. Had it bee Hammond, May or Clarkson, then the show would no-doubt have been aired on prime-time BBC One and would have attracted a much larger audience. And once again this adds to the future dilemma for television producers to choose the celebrity/popular controversial commentator OR the 'expert'.

    Finally, I am a huge fan of the BBC and hope that BBC4 will survive.

  2. Kelvin Mckenzie is a detestable man, and I agree with you that they wheel him out to cause controversy. I am not sure Starkey was before this, although he is now.

    I would have thought if any show would justify an expert over a big name, it would be Newsnight, as it has a core fanbase which values expert analysis over fame. Perhaps I am being naive.

    The Code was one which I thought of after I finished this, and is perhaps an example of an academic led series which failed. I thought they plugged it more than one would expect, and that it failed because it reeked of an academic trying to prove his point, rather than explain how maths could help to explain patterns in the 'real world'. It just floundered around, switching between locations and subjects without any discernible direction. It could have done with a 'real world' producer to put the ideas of the academic into a comprehensible format. Perhaps he was failed by the BBC.

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