Would the BBC have taken a risk on “Luther” if Idris Elba hadn't been in The Wire? Photo: BBC
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What does it say about Britain that our best black actors have to go abroad to succeed?

For a country that prides itself on its multiculturalism, our television is shockingly unrepresentative of what the UK is really like.

A group of leading actors and writers have written an open letter to the five senior executives of the UK’s major broadcasting institutions, in which they have called for greater diversity of employees within British television. Noting that “only 5 per cent of employees in our creative industries are black and minority ethnic (BME), despite BMEs making up 12.5 per cent of the total UK population,” they propose that a sum of money be ring-fenced for investment for BME programmes. Well aware that their suggestion may be accused of tokenism, they explain that “it is about quality of programming, not quantity: money is only spent when quality projects are identified – not to fill a quota.”

The most striking thing about this letter – beyond even its radical call to arms and the calibre of those who have signed it – is how many of those signatories had to leave the UK in order to find the best platforms for the talent. Perhaps the most feted of them all, Idris Elba, had to go all the way to Baltimore before his breakout role in The Wire. David Harewood had to make a similar pilgrimage to the United States before starring in Homeland. And last year, David Oyelowo told the Guardian that “when I went to British film investors with stories of the black experience in a historical context, I was told verbatim: ‘We’re looking for Dickens or Austen. Your story is a hard sell.’ Britain is not inclusive of how I look or who I am, so I looked to America.” In the same article, Oyelowo made clear where he thinks the problem lies. “There’s a reluctance in our cinema to accept the real Britain we live in,” he observed, “and that’s because we still operate within the auspices of a class system motivated by nepotism.”

Oyelowo’s claim, when combined with the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in his industry, seems to indicate that something is badly awry. If there is indeed widespread bias in the commissioning process, then it will have – or continue to have – a pernicious and knock-on effect, in that writers will only pitch work that is thoroughly conventional in its content. It is sobering to think, had Elba not already entered the realms of superstardom, that Luther might not have graced our TV screens and enthralled panels of judges both here and abroad. Commissioners may simply not have taken a chance on a brilliant yet unknown actor.

This open letter, with regard to Oyelowo’s claim, implicitly goes further in its scope than race itself: it also raises the question of class, and of British television as an establishment that is by definition slow to evolve. That same establishment may look enviously at the extraordinary success of HBO series after HBO series, and if so it would be wise to heed the central lesson of that brilliant channel: which is that it seems committed, as much as any western media outlet, to recruiting the best talent wherever it may find it. Indeed, it seems strange, given that Britain’s diversity was the cornerstone of one of the best pieces of popular entertainment in recent years – namely, the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games – that this same diversity is still struggling for expression.

Part of that responsibility, it must be said, may also come down to British television’s most successful writers, some of whom have not yet consistently managed to incorporate BME storylines into their shows. Perhaps, broadly speaking, there are two reasons for this. The first is that they themselves have narrow frames of experience, and are simply writing what they know. The second is that they would rather avoid the complexity of writing such storylines, wary of getting them wrong: a modern-day version of the concerns of Charles Schulz, who agonised over introducing a black character into Peanuts. However, neither of these grounds, though logical, is satisfactory; least of all in a country that prides itself on its multiculturalism. They may speak, more than anything else, to a failure of imagination; and, though the actress Naomie Harris has described progress in this area as “extraordinary”, the numbers suggest that there is still substantial work to be done. 

It may rankle, that several of Britain’s leading success stories on both the big and small screens have been despite, and not due to, the structures in place within the TV industry. (Most recently, and most famously, the 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen found his way to Oscar success after a nomadic career outside the UK.) Yet given the talent present within the UK’s BME ranks, it should not take too long for this proposed investment to start bearing fruit. Here’s hoping that we’ll one day see home-grown television every bit as epic as The Wire. It won’t be a moment too soon. 

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

Photo: LYNSEY ADDARIO
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What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left