David Starkey poses for a photograph while attending the Morgan Stanley Great Britons Awards 2006

David Starkey is a litmus test of our commitment to free speech

David Starkey is a litmus test of our commitment to free speech

David Starkey is plainly not human. He is a walking art installation created to test people's commitment to freedom of speech.

Last night's Question Time saw him at his most odious. He called Huffington Post political director Medhi Hasan 'Ahmed', seemingly as an insult – possibly just in a revealing moment of ignorance. He insisted "nothing meaningful has been written in Arabic in 500 years". He told Tory MP Anna Soubry to "shut up". And he got himself into no end of trouble mulling over sexually "highly mature" 13-year-old girls, who could be "profoundly manipulative".

Starkey is plainly a fool of the highest order. I've never read him, but it's inconceivable he could be a historian of any worth given the boorish generalities which constitute his thought.

However, he is a useful idiot, because he serves to highlight just how tenuous people's newfound commitment to freedom of speech really is.

Many people's response to Starkey is one of soft-banning. Sure, they parrot out Voltaire (or rather Evelyn Hall) like everyone else, but when someone comes along with views which are considered intolerable, the response is to demand they are uninvited from the programme in future and usually removed from TV altogether. This is the world of 'no platforming', of demanding the BBC 'stop giving him airtime'. It is the shadow of the ban, the tactic which preceeds demands for police intervention.