What David Starkey can learn from Rastamouse

The historian's comments were wrong, insulting, crude and disingenuous. He could learn a lot from th

David Starkey has a lot to learn from Rastamouse. We've all got a lot to learn from Rastamouse, but Starkey in particular. After his comments on Newsnight last week about white people having become black, and his horror at the sound of patois, he might learn something at the Thames Festival, when he's due to share a boat with the rasta rodent's creators Genevieve Webster and Michael De Souza.

It's probably too much to hope that Starkey greets the pair with a cheery "wa'gwan?" and pleads to be made an honorary member of Da Easy Crew as penance for his shameful statements. He should: he'd probably get an insight into the things he's spoken about from the tales of Rastamouse and Da Easy Crew, a community-spirited bunch who always want "to make a bad ting good". Perhaps in the case of Starkey's numbskull views, that might be an assignment too far even for Rastamouse. President Wensley Dale might regard Starkey as a lost cause, but we can always hope.

What Starkey said last week was wrong, insulting, crude and disingenuous. You don't even have to use the R-bomb, and it's probably best that those who disagree with him choose not to use it. No -- perhaps words like pathetic, ill-judged, crude, daft, idiotic, embarrassing, disgraceful and witless are better than the R-bomb. It's true, I suppose, that people do occasionally wheel out terms like racist (and misogynist, and so on) when they aren't merited, as a way of going nuclear in an argument. But there are equally many times when people do say and write things which are offensive, and need to be called out.

I know there are many who have leapt to his defence. "Oh no no, it wasn't racist because it wasn't racist, therefore it wasn't," goes the argument, and who am I to argue against that? How can you? There's no point. It's one of those odd things about the way we argue things nowadays that if you say someone's said something racist for saying something racist, it gives them an immediate "out". Aha, they turn around and say, you're calling me a racist, it's the Politically Correct Stasi gone mad, it's the new McCarthyism, you're not even allowed to be racist anymore without someone going and calling you racist. And that opens up a huge, distracting and tedious debate which deflects you from what people actually said.

What Starkey actually said was wrong. He got it hopelessly, ridiculously wrong. But these things happen when you wheel on entertaining experts like Starkey, controversialists who "make good TV" rather than necessarily provide the most accurate answers to the questions at hand. Television is forever in fear of the remote control, and aims to keep us interested; it knows we're not too keen on dry debates, so it aims to stir the pot a little.

Starkey is, after all, not put on television because of his skill as a historian. He's put on television as an entertainer, a controversialist, a pompous-sounding gasbag who comes out with stuff that makes you sit up and take notice. There should be a caption on screen whenever he starts his Professor Yaffle needling: "This historian is for entertainment purposes only."

In the meantime, Starkey could do worse than read a few Rastamouse books to gen up on his new friends. He might even learn some of the patois that scares him so much, so he can sound culturally aware for his next TV appearance. Irie.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories