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'Bankers deserve bonuses'

For the past decade John Roberts has worked within a bank in the City where the annual cash bonus is

Until recently the City has been an opaque place where a strange language is spoken, alien amounts of money earned, largely through unimaginably vast bonuses.

And, I concede, I've not done too badly out of it. But don't get me wrong – by banking standards I'm not one of those big earners.

Not by a longshot.

The securities firm where I work is part of an international banking group one, incidentally, which hasn't received state aid.

The firm comprises two divisions - securities and corporate finance.

The securities division generates commission from dealing in shares for large investors and generates profits from market making – that's a turn on the difference between the price at which the firm offers to buy and sell shares for clients. It also trades in shares with its own funds.

Its analysts publish research on quoted companies, the salesmen talk about this research, together with general news. This joint effort is intended to generate buy and sell orders from pension, investment and hedge fund clients. Market makers and traders buy and sell shares.

The corporate finance division works for companies to earn advisory fees. Fees mainly come from acquisitions and from equity (share) fundraisings (initial public offerings, rights issues and placings), where the corporate finance and securities divisions operate in tandem.

As such, the firm, and the 15-20 London firms like it, thrive in positive market conditions where investors are keen to invest in shares but suffer when negative sentiment prevails.

The business is operationally geared. The overhead – basic salaries, office space, systems and IT – is high but there is little variable cost. Once the overhead's been covered, the vast bulk of additional revenues go straight to operating profit. Revenues in the range of £50-60m represent a reasonable, if unexceptional, year.

More than 100 people work in the firm about a third of whom would see themselves as senior revenue generators or managers. Senior employees earn base salaries of £100-130K.

The bonus pot

Internally, the bonus pot is seen as the purpose of the firm. The potential to double, triple or even quadruple your base salary – not unrealistic for decent performers in benign conditions - is seen as the principal purpose for working. And it makes for a motivating and exciting environment. Few things galvanise effort more than money.

There is a sense that the basic salary is required to get you to turn up and that any reasonable level of performance justifies the payment of a bonus.

The workings of the overall bonus pot in our organisation are in part simple and clear and in part byzantine and opaque.

A simple and clear split is agreed between the owner and firm’s management as to the portion of pre-bonus operating profit which goes into the bonus pot. This generally ranges from a third to a half in this subsector. It is understood throughout the firm that it is in everyone’s interest to maximise the bonus pot. Little or no management is required.

With good momentum in the first half of the year, there is a huge collective effort to build up commissions and fees, particularly in the last quarter.

People understand that improving the overall quality of the business - by attracting good clients - should make maximising the pot easier in the medium term.

So why would businesses like this keep their system for rewarding their employees so opaque?

In theory, the guiding principle should be how much revenue you have brought in or assisted during the year combined with your contribution to the medium term health of the firm through client wins, analyst ranking by investors, deal quality and profile.

In practice, while management talks fluently about transparency, procedure and principles, such an approach would be unworkable.

A clear and transparent procedure would, at best, be used by employees to argue in detail their bonus level and, at worst, to litigate. It helps that no-one else knows what you are awarded.

But here's the downside. Your performance is only part of it. The rest is politics and if your currency is high in the company then you could, in extreme but not uncommon circumstances, get three times the bonus of a similarly performing, though less favoured colleague.

The half a dozen heads of each activity meet to decide what each person should get.

Some of these individuals will fight for their teams. Others may not because they need to think carefully about their own positions. They need to leave a fair chunk of the pot free for themselves.

Giving too much credit to team members could underplay the importance of outstanding management!

In practice, the key markers are the overall size of the pot and what each individual got last year.

The interpretation which most accurately seems to fit the facts is that the heads then seek to pay out as little as they can get away with so as not to unbalance the ship too much whilst leaving as much as possible for the favoured few and themselves.

There are probably three avenues to joining the very small group of super earners, who can pull in more than £400K in non-exceptional years - this is not a highly paid part of the City.

Being very good, means delivering large revenues by quietly getting on with the job, or joining the management group or becoming favoured by management either through politics or making a lot of noise.

Considering the firm, there may be three or four individuals at one time (out of more than 100) who are very good and whose departure would be felt across the company.

These people are usually unremarkable to meet but have the knack of developing strong relationships with big hitting clients. As the firm depends on their earning power, these people need to be well remunerated.

Of the half a dozen heads, no individual directly sets his own bonus but as a member of this group you can frame the discussion and make your case directly.

Becoming part of this group requires good performance early in your career followed by a lot of time and effort politicking – or simply being hired from another firm.

Climbing upwards necessitates stepping on people – and only a minority are willing to embark on this high risk strategy.

More time managing means less client contact and weaker client relationships – ultimately clients pay bills. Life expectancy for a head is not long – generally three to four years maximum. This makes it imperative to squeeze the most out during the years in the sun.

Members of the favoured group are usually very impressive to meet. It is only with a reasonable level of probing and watching their mediocrity becomes apparent.

Joining this group requires a mixture of charm, eloquence and shamelessness. Symptoms include the development of an external profile and regular threats to leave the firm citing attractive job offers.

This is a difficult game to play and, again, requires a certain type of character but has been done very effectively over the years leading to a substantial misallocation of the bonus pot, particularly in boom years.

To continue the criticism, it is possible to cite disasters for both employee and firm which inevitably accompany a secretive bonus procedure that can allow both management and employees to act without scruple.

It is not uncommon for strong performers to be awarded zero bonuses as a result of a mixture of personal animosity and political miscalculation.

Employment lawyers advise that unless some form of discrimination – sex or age - can be demonstrated, the courts are (sensibly) very reluctant to get involved. Bonuses are explicitly discretionary and the employee’s redress is to quit.

And, of course, the system can be worked. For example one of the activity heads secured very substantial bonuses for himself and two colleagues, no doubt citing their irreplaceability.

Inexplicably and against previous practice, the firm agreed not to retain any portion of these bonuses and the day the money hit their bank accounts, he and these colleagues walked and joined a rival firm. Such stories are not uncommon.

All that said, for the genuine stars and the bulk of the team – reasonably good if unexceptional performers – the best policy is to get on with the job of servicing clients and delivering revenue.

Annual cash bonuses work well for businesses which generate annual cash profits. While rewarding performance year by year clearly encourages short termism, most senior employees are in for the medium term and are therefore interested in promoting the ongoing health of the business.

And there's something else. It seems to this avowed capitalist at least that a bonus system where the business owner agrees to share a very material portion of the profits with the employees, who take no capital risks, has a strong socialist dimension.

The approach seems instinctively very fair. And I'd argue with my eyes open to its many imperfections that the bonus culture overall works well. I commend it to other industries making up UK plc.

Of course these waters are muddied just now by the intervention of the government in propping up some of the larger banks and this exposes a curious dilemma.

As part of a large effectively bankrupted institution, employees at RBS are lucky to have jobs at all and the reverse laundering of tax payers money into bankers’s bank accounts must be a non-starter.

On the other hand, it seems grossly inequitable that, where there are profitable and cash generative businesses within it, those people who sweated to create profits and cashflow without which the bank would be in even worse fettle are now left high and dry without the reward they have worked for.

Put it this way, without those efforts made on the promise that bonuses would be awarded the taxpayers’ investment would be in even more peril than it already is.

In addition, restricting bonuses is suicidal for the medium term value of those good businesses within the group.

The answer to that rather knotty dilemma? I don’t know. But perhaps reneging on a promise in order to shoot yourself in the foot is politically necessary sometimes.

John Roberts is not the author's real name

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile