Penny vs Starkey Intellectual Deathmatch

Ahh, dammit Rupert Murdoch, you got me eventually. After reports came out of a massive bust-up between the feminist writer Laurie Penny and the historian David Starkey, the Times dribbled a couple of teaser snippets onto YouTube, with a link to the whole thing (or at least the main highlights), so long as you pop a shilling in the slot of the Times paywall. It’s a blatant attempt to get us to sign up to their paid-for service, and they reeled me in, hook, line and sinker. Oh well, at least I finally get to read Caitlin Moran’s columns as well as her Twitter now.

So, given that I’ve been reeled in, what do I actually think of the affair?

Penny and Starkey’s respective sympathisers seem to be scrambling to cheer on their chosen side. I actually think Penny and Starkey have a few things in common. Both can be funny, insightful and combative. Neither shies away from a fight. Both have an unfortunate tendency to reflect the prejudices of their political tribe.

Penny in particular has developed something of a reputation as a lightning rod for all sorts of thunderbolts aimed in her direction. Some of the criticisms aimed at her carry some weight – for example her unashamedly partisan reporting style. Others less so, such as when she gets derided as a rich girl turned far-left. I understand that her upbringing, while financially comfortable, was by no means rich. And besides, is it necessarily wrong for those born wealthy to embrace leftist politics? Just ask George Orwell and Joe Strummer.

Things seem to have begun to stir when Penny accused Starkey of “playing xenophobia and national prejudice for laughs”. Then things really kicked off when she interrupted a discussion about Britishness to enquire unprompted about Starkey’s residence and ask him where he was domiciled for tax purposes. He angrily responded to this by saying he’s domiciled in Britain and he pays his full taxes. He then declared, “As you have chosen to be personal and invidious, let me share a little story with you” and launched into this rant.

Frankly, I can’t claim to be overly impressed with either of them. Penny shouldn’t have made a baseless insinuation about his tax status. Starkey should have been more aware of how he would look bellowing and jabbing his finger at a girl half his size.

Later on, Penny claims that the reason she charged an excessive amount for the event described was because she felt she was being set up for just such a confrontation, and she did it as a way to back out. Which strikes me as rather odd. Why not just say no? And why did she then say yes to this event? [EDIT: Penny responds to that query here.]

The debate then ended in the following manner.

Next week: cage fighting with Will Self and Slavoj Zizek.