Starkey vs. Penny – Transcript

By Neuroskeptic | June 25, 2012 6:31 pm

The British Twittersphere has been enlivened today by the release of a video showing the ‘heated’ debate between historian David Starkey and journalist Laurie Penny during a discussion on the English national identity.

Some clips are available on YouTube, but the full video is behind a pay-wall, so I thought I’d write up the transcript for anyone who’s interested.
Personally I think any attempt to define a national (or other) ‘identity’ can only undermine that identity, just as analyzing a joke renders it unfunny.

Identities, like humour, stop making sense when you try to make sense of them; there is nothing rational about them, and to debate them rationally is impossible – this exchange is English in a way that no amount of sensible arguments could be.


Laurie Penny at podium.

LP: “But what’s interesting about the question what is Britishness, is precisely the fact that nobody seems to know. It’s gold for a columnist, it’s gold for any hack, and, you’ve seen 4 people on this panel are probably going to give completely different answers, anybody you ask in this audience is going to give a different answer. If you ask David Cameron, it’s about tolerance and fairness and inviting French people to take advantage of our lenient tax system; if you ask a pupil at Wellington college, growing up in these lovely surroundings, they’ll tell you, probably about the excellent teaching here, but they’ll also tell you about grime and dubstep and whatever it is they’re listening to; if you ask me, and I’ve been recently been living in America for a while, so, I get asked this question quite a lot, and I bring up things like, the taste of fish and chips on Brighton Beach, and Dr Who, and drinking tea. That’s what it is for me. If you ask somebody like my colleague Prof. Starkey, it’s playing xenophobia and racial prejudice for laughs, and if you ask people who organize conferences like this, it’s sitting by politely while people play racial prejudice and xenophobia for laughs and pretending that this is an acceptable part of contemporary debate…”

Video cuts – panel discussion

A Man: “We’re setting up a false dichotomy here between Britishness and Englishness; they’re not, at all…”
David Starkey: “There’s an absolute dichotomy. The two are completely different, there’s a historic English identity which goes way back before the concept of Britain. Also this notion that England or Britain as uniquely a nation of immigrants is preposterous – every European country is a blend, of course it is, but the great, there are two great differences. The first…”
Laurie Penny: “I believe you have a house in America, Mr Starkey?”
DS: “I have a house in America.”
LP: “I was wondering, where are you domiciled for tax purposes?”
DS: “I am domiciled here, and I pay full taxes, and can I just say…” (stands up to face audience) “as you have chosen to be personal and invidious, let me share a little story with you. One of the great things that is essential to Britishness is the sense of public duty, that you do things for nothing with organizations that can’t pay. Ms Penny, who has been advertising these great left-wing virtues, and I, were to due to debate for a very impoverished little society called the Thomas Paine Society, on the virtues of a republic on the one hand and a monarchy on the other. I…”
LP: (inaudible)
DS: “I was prepared to do it for free, she insisted on trying to charge such a large fee that the event had to be cancelled. Now I think that that is as mean and grasping as some runt comedian (audience applause), and I will not be lectured to by a jumped-up public schoolgirl like you; I came from the bottom, and I will not have it.”
(applause, laughter, jeers etc.)
(LP takes podium)
LP: “Excuse me, may I respond to that, I think I deserve a right of reply to that. I personally feel that asking to be paid…”
DS: “Did you or did you not do what I just said?”
LP: “I was going to respond to that, but if you…”
DS: “Why not do it straight away. Did you or did you not claim such a large fee that the event had to be cancelled?”
LP: “No, I didn’t, Mr Starkey.”
DS: “Well then, every member of the committee is lying and you, clearly, as usual, are telling the truth.”
LP: “No, this is not what was said to me. I…”
DS: “I have emails. That wonderful… method of tracking…”
Chairman: “Alright, alright, respond to it Laurie…”
LP: “No, actually I don’t think I’m gonna respond to it, one of the… the event was cancelled partly because they couldn’t find a speaker in time, because they were trying to fly me out and part of the reason that… the cost for that on top of my being asked to be paid for two days work, because I actually don’t earn very much…”
DS: “Pffffffffff!”
Chairman: “They had two pretty good speakers there already…”
DS: “No, she backed out because she wasn’t being paid.”
Chairman: “Anyway, we’re running out of time, but I wanna come back to Britishness vs. Englishness…”
LP: “I’m sorry, excuse me – I really don’t appreciate being stood on stage to be personally attacked and having a finger jabbed in my face.”

Video cuts

Chairman: “Laurie?”
LP: “I think I’d like to say something about Britishness in terms of what’s just gone on here, which I feel we’ve moved on from very quickly, I attempted to make a point, and had a person on this panel shouting and pointing in my face, and in fact the point that Professor Starkey raised, about me dropping out of a panel when we were due to speak together, my main reason for doing so was that I didn’t want something like that to happen. I felt like I was being set up to be attacked, and part of the reason I decided to – this is a difficult thing to say and it’s easier to say to event organizers that you’re going to charge a ridiculous sum of money – and be asked to… well not necessarily ridiculous but… and be asked to go.” (cheers / jeers?)
Chairman: “Alright…”
LP: “On the other hand, excuse me, I haven’t finished my point. My point is that this is what debates like this come down to. There’s a civil way of putting… racial prejudice… there’s also…”
(Someone walks in front of camera and makes a ‘cut’ gesture to Chairman)
Chairman: “OK Laurie, I want a final word from…”
LP: “I also want to say that there’s a violence inherent in this discussion and it comes out very, very easily.”
Audience woman: “You started it, that’s the problem, you called him a racist, you know you did…”
LP: “He is a racist.”
Organizer: “OK ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to call a halt at this point…”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: funny, media, politics
  • Callum J Hackett

    I generally don't agree with Starkey, but it sounds to me like Penny is slippery, disingenuous and opportunistic.

  • Anonymous

    You're first paragraph about identity is right on. Frankly I wouldn't call much of the kerkuffle over identity as racism as much as xenophobia, which is more understandable. We live in a very insecure time and seeing a lot of strangers can make it more difficult. But it's totally disingenuous for people to be bashing Islam when they're really just trying to express their insecurity. Kenan Malik has written some good stuff on his blog over this if you're interested.

  • omg

    Nationhood is defined by the UN, declaration of Human Rights etc. Britain, America etc. and liberal democracies generally don't have one. I agree with the chic. Anyone who's got a political background should know that. If you had two politicians engaging in the same debate, as in national identity, aside from specific policy points targeting working class families, welfare and so on, stuff outside of that would be considered inappropriate and xenophobic. British culture and stereotypes on the otherhand is a matter of personal opinion.

  • Zarathustra

    I can't say I'm overly impressed with either of them. Penny shouldn't have made a baseless insinuation about Starkey's tax status, and Starkey should have thought a bit about how he would look, bellowing and jabbing his finger at a girl half his size.

    Worst of all, they've caused me to bite the bullet and sign up for Murdoch's paywall so I could watch the fight, popcorn in hand. 😉

    I look forward next week to cage fighting with Will Self and Slavoj Zizek.

  • omg

    This debate shouldn't have been organized in the first place, it contravenes the consitution, Brits commitment to international protocals. She has a point and had every right to exercise her activism against this ludicrous debate, including, questioning Starkey's commitment to Britain. National identity is a national security issue, debates like these fuel conflicts in Palestine, Sudan, genocides to right wing fascism. This Starky shrewd obviously caught onto it and had to belittle her at the fact in the bigger scheme of things she's a step ahead of him. I agree with her, he's racist. That seems to be the only fundamental truth to this debate.

  • Anonymous

    Why Zarathustra? I'm not being funny, but when you have someone publicly defame you as a 'xenophobe, racist tax dodger' I think you can be forgiven if your response is robust and forthright.

    These are potentially career shattering slurs; sure, Starkey reacted energetically, but that is completely understandable. She had to be put in her place. She's come across as a complete fool.

    By the way, the full video is on Youtube:

  • omg

    Robust and forthright my foot. He avoided the matter altogether by purposely making an ass of himself. Brits should be asking why indeed he owns a house in America. What's he been doing there? Studying America's history? Dodging taxes? Paid conservative? Two faced conservative? I get the chic, she's smart. But he's dodgy. He's obviously been watching Jerry Springer because his attitude does not seem like a British gentleman at all.

  • Mus et Montes

    Identities, like humour, stop making sense when you try to make sense of them…

    Not a very scientific position. Sense stops making sense when you try to make sense of it. That doesn't mean you can't tell sense from nonsense, or English from Quechua, or Quechua from Malay, or Malay from…

    “He is a racist.”…

    Aka blasphemer, heretic, unclean infidel, one with whom no member of the faithful should treat. “Racist” is the semantic equivalent of “Yuck!” It's designed to close down a debate that the self-defined anti-racist isn't winning. And can't win, because science isn't theology and reality will not go away because the High Priests (or Priestesses) tell it to. Take it away, Horace:

    Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret. / You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, but she will return…

    • Seeker of Muffins

      A clever boy you are.

  • Anonymous

    Avoided the matter? He responded to petty insults and slurs. There wasn't a argument.

    Talking out your backside 'OMG'.

  • Anonymous

    actually omg you can quite clearly hear him on the video and read in the transcript that:
    “Laurie Penny: “I believe you have a house in America, Mr Starkey?”
    DS: “I have a house in America.”
    LP: “I was wondering, where are you domiciled for tax purposes?”
    DS: “I am domiciled here, and I pay full taxes, and can I just say”

    he clearly states he is domiciled here and pays full taxes, she was just trying to coat him with slander to get the audience to dismiss his points, a classic example of an Appeal to the People (or Argument by Emotive language

  • Neuroskeptic

    Starkey certainly had a right to respond to a silly provocation, but his response was vindictive and unbecoming of a professor. What happened to the British art of rhetorical understatement, the 'stiff upper lip'?

  • Anonymous

    Oh do me a favour 'Neuroskeptic'.

    You're going to engender a pretty tempestuous reaction when you publicly defame someone as a xenophobic, racist tax dodger.

    'Rhetorical understatement' is meaningless gibberish – Starkey was positively muted given the potentially ruinous slime that was poured over him. If you continually castigate someone with the bogeyword of 'racism' and attempt to publicly shame an individual, then don't be at all surprised if they respond in a boisterous way.

    Fair play to Starkey – watching the video I'm absolutely dumbfounded how Penny could have acted in that manner. What in your opinion would have been justified? Invective was countered with a no-nonsense and stern response; failing that, the whole episode would have been forgotten – people like Penny need to know that that sort of behavour won't be tolerated. Keep your slurs to yourself.

  • Neuroskeptic

    He should have said:

    “I am domiciled here and I pay full taxes” and left it at that.

    Penny would then have either had to cede the point – and lose face for interrupting him with such a silly interjection – or she'd lose even more face by digging herself further into a hole.

    And then, seize that moment to elegantly rebut the racism allegations.

  • Zarathustra

    I quite agree with Neuroskeptic. If Starkey had responded with wit and elegance he could have easily won the argument and made Penny look snide and disingenuous.

    As it happens he thundered in and made himself look like a petulant bully.

    Who won? I'd say they both lost.

  • Bob

    I'd hate to see what an un-'muted' response would of been.

  • Anonymous

    On Penny herself, this is worth a read:

    See the following comment here:

    'As a general fan of feminist journalists and writers, I would like to support Laurie; unfortunately I cannot because I know that she is indeed dishonest and immoral in her journalism.

    She appears to have no qualms in lying about about anything to rise up the journo ladder even if it means dishonestly tainting the lives of those around her as a result.

    The article she wrote early on in her 'career' about burlesque is a case in point in effectively ruining other people's reputations through deceit – and is how I personally know that she will lie to get ahead. (

    Laurie got involved briefly in a cabaret group at Oxford University that i was also part of. Unlike many male and female students involved Penny chose to strip down to nipple tassels while performing in the show.

    However in this article, which she ironically wrote at a time when she still had naked frontal pictures of her upper torso on Facebook (which she has subsequently chosen to remove) she wrote that she was forced to strip and forced to smile (“until your face hurts”) through her misery.

    The Guardian webpage indeed now has a number of corrective notes at the bottom including: “Changes were made to the second paragraph to make clear that the author was not persuaded by the managers of a local burlesque troupe to get into stripping, but did so voluntarily.”

    However the horrible implications made on our directors/producers (both rather camp male burlesque performers themselves) by the original article cannot really be removed.

    She also made the bizarre comment that while at the Edinburgh fringe “it was a rare day indeed when a shy, bewildered girl wasn't crying in the toilets backstage because she thought her costume made her look fat”. I was on that tour, and am still friends with most of the girls who were on that tour. They were all flabbergasted (and would have been amused had not the implications of this line from the article been so insulting to them) by this as they did not feel fat (thank you very much), did not ever cry on that trip, were not bewildered, and did not feel like victims in any way while in the show… And of course the majority hadn't wanted to show off all their body parts (on stage or on Facebook) as Penny was so keen to do anyway!

    After Edinburgh, the directors decided to be less generous in letting almost anyone who wanted to to perform in the show in some way do so. Hence Penny – who was not a natural performer – was no longer asked to be in the show. Perhaps this is where her bitterness lies. Therefore her article also mourns the demise of certain acts, claiming the show “ditched our most subversive acts”. It certainly did not as anyone who saw the later shows can attest to. But yes it had ditched the less talented ones involved!

    In all, she attempted to smear the really rather gentle directors/producers of the show by saying they forced her to strip, made girls cry and made them smile through the misery. Essentially she painted them up to be horrors, which couldn't have been further from the truth. She also painted the girls (oddly enough not boys – i guess boys have no feelings or body issues to contend with in her mind) as being insecure victims when they were performers, singers, comedians and dancers who still feel very proud to have been involved in the show.

    Posted by: Alex Levi-Smith | April 29, 2012 at 18:32'

    Laurie Penny is a nasty, spiteful little liar.

  • omg

    MM, I don't know what you just said.

    Anon, yes he did avoid the matter. Instead of defending why he has a house in America (some rich people do this and avoid taxes), he belittled her. A grown man fully aware she's a reporter, activist, was either without the wisdom to be cordial, or corrupt and concealing something. I suspect the latter, he reacted like a politician hiding something with an agenda. He's American, they should investigate him. She touched a raw nerve. Let me also just say with my experience with public officials and not academics like you lot, senile is a common trait among old men like Starsky, bitter he didn't have the elitist upbringing to join the old boys club and cut it as a politician or in a power clique of somesort. They are the Judas types who'd betray their own country for a few coins.

  • omg

    I don't believe a word this “Alex Levi-Smith” has said. Jealousy is not cool. Youngish people say s* all the time. Starkey on the otherhand should know better.

  • Anonymous

    Ah yes. He's a grown man picking on poor lickle Penny.

    Starkey is a petulant bully But Laurie is disingenuous and opportunistic.

    It only becomes an either/or when you want to take sides.

  • Anonymous


    The man can have a house anywhere he bloody well likes – he doesn't have to defend it to you or to any other interloping creep. Unbelievable.

  • Douglas Johnstone

    David Starkey was asked a question he didn't like and had a hissey fit. He almost attacked physically Laurie Penny. The Tom Paine Society themselves have said that the event was cancelled due to timing, and NOT as Prof Starkey said because of Miss Penny's fee. This is her work and I think she is entitled to be paid for work. She is not rich like Prof Starkey (from his TV and media work). Miss Penny is right, Prof Starkey is a racist. For proof of this just look at any of his comments on immigration or event the recent riots.
    It also seemed to me after watching the clips that Prof Starkey was drunk. You see him constantly filling up his wine glass.

  • Neuroskeptic

    It was a pretty stupid question, to be fair, but his reaction was unbecoming of a scholar and gentleman.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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