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‘Cancel culture a reflection of rightwing papers’ intolerance,’ says David Olusoga

Historian taking part in debate at Hay festival says he is labelled an activist to ‘delegitimise’ his voice

Historian and TV presenter David Olusoga has said that rightwing newspapers characterise him as an activist and critical race theorist to “delegitimise” his voice, despite there being no basis for these claims.

Olusoga, whose work has explored black Britishness and the legacy of empire and slavery, said that people “feel perfectly comfortable making these comments about me without being able to point to a single reference or footnote in my books”. He said that in reality he is “an old-fashioned empirical historian who fundamentally tells stories and tries to create empathy and a public understanding of history”.

He told an audience at Hay festival: “Why the need to describe me as a critical race theorist? Why the need to describe me as an activist rather than a historian? These are all about delegitimising people’s voices.”

Olusoga was speaking as part of a debate on “how cancel culture has become a blood sport”, but said that the phrase did not capture his experience, since it is usually attributed to students, who he thinks are falsely accused of fomenting “cancel culture”, when in reality it reflects “a growing intolerance” in rightwing newspapers.

He was also asked for his views on the response to historian David Starkey’s comments that slavery was not genocide. Starkey subsequently resigned from his post at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam College.

Olusoga said he was “conflicted” because while what Starkey had said was “appalling” and “inaccurate”, he felt “it’s sad that somebody who is a great historian was getting into those debates”.

He blamed Starkey’s tone on the influence of the Moral Maze, BBC Radio 4’s provocative show that has run since 1990, for “elevating opinion over expertise”. “It’s taken some who have great expertise away from that expertise and into that carnivalesque world of commentary,” he said.

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