History Behind the Headlines – a podcast series from journalist David Keys

David Keys is a journalist based in London who works extensively with historical topics. He has researched the context to more than 70 conflicts and crises around the world. He aims to be as objective and comprehensive as possible in his portrayal of the past and is producing a rolling series of podcasts that may be very useful for history and civics teacher in the EuroClio network. They may also be useful to older / higher attaining students studying specific topics in class. David argues that the conflicts and crises of today have political, cultural and psychological roots that go back into the past. It therefore follows that we can get a better global and political understanding of current conflicts and crises via learning about how they have evolved.

At the time of writing, there are four episodes available. Each is 15 minutes long, making them perfect for busy teachers to listen to while doing the washing up, walking the dog, commuting to school. They are also the right length to engage older students, without them feeling overwhelmed. The topics covered so far range across four continents and are about: Israel and Palestine, Mexico’s drug war, Kashmir and Scotland. They are in a lecture style and although the English is very clear, it is fair to say you need to listen carefully as the subject matter is complex and covered in some depth, even in a short time. It is very helpful that transcripts are provided. If using these with students the transcipts could be used for highlighting key concepts, people, organisations and events that are needed to understand the topic. Students could be asked to construct a timeline of events and changes to help them to process all the information.

These podcasts are, of course, an interpretation of past events. David Keys has chosen to cover a large sweep of time in his 15 minute recordings. This means that there is a lot of factual information, making them excellent for overview work and for identifying areas for future study. David Keys is not concerned with evaluating different opinions and interpretations of key events and it could be that teachers and/or students could take one part of a recording and then focus on the different debates that surround an event. For example, students could investigate what is meant by the term: “Europeanisation of Scottish culture, education and law.”

Even though the key purpose is to give a grand sweep of factual information, there are points where a clear opinion is given. For example, at the start of the episode on Kashmir: “India’s continued abrogation of normal human rights in Kashmir – the only Muslim-majority region in India – is compromising the world’s biggest democracy’s relationship with several other key geopolitical players – including Turkey, China, Malaysia and potentially the European Union.” An activity for students could be to identify the places in a podcast where there is a firm opinion given.

Further discussion that could be had with students about interpreting the past, can be done by using the fact that a 15 minute podcast covering content over a sweep of time has, by definition, to involve some tough choices about what to leave out, and that those choices shape the interpretation that emerges. For example, in the episode on Israel and Palestine he gives a short quote from the Balfour Declaration of 1917: “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. This is short due to time constraints, and it is interesting to note how this has shaped the interpretation as the longer quote from the Balfour Declaration is: “His Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” The lengthier quote, which has to be selected out of a short podcast, does lead to a rather different perspective on the controversial Balfour Declaration. It is useful to bring students’ attention to this aspect of the creation of interpretations. Intrepretations are made by deliberate choice, but sometimes that choice is driven by very practical concerns (what fits into a coherent 15 mins, in this case), rather than any thought of political manipulation. It can help students to understand that all history is interpretation, as it is, by definition, a selection from a vast past.

The podcast series is available on a number of streaming services, including Listennotes and Apple.

Written by Helen Snelson, EuroClio Ambassador