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Special investigation: a charter for torture

In Afghanistan, British forces hand over prisoners with only flimsy guarantees they will not be abus

What is striking about the history of torture in Afghanistan is that no matter which regime is in power - the communists, the mujahedin, the Taliban and now Hamid Karzai's western-supported government - the methods remain the same. From the 1980s to the present day, electrocution and beating have been the principal weapons used against those the state deems dangerous or undesirable.

A former jihadi recently told the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the similarity in treatment between his arrests in the 1980s and in late January 2009. "In Afghan­istan, some types of torture are common and these are beating and electric shocks, given twice a day," he said. "I was tortured at nine in the morning and again from two to three o'clock in the afternoon.

“They kept me in a toilet, kept me thirsty and hungry, and used to hang me upside down for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. I was frequently threatened with death. I was not allowed to meet my family during either imprisonment."

He was released after 25 days, once the elders of his tribe had paid the equivalent of £2,000 in Pakistani rupees.

In another case we investigated, a father was forced to listen to the torture of his 20-year-old son and 16-year-old nephew. The family's ordeal began at 3am one day in early March this year, after a team of Afghan and foreign intelligence operatives broke down the door to his home in a village in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. They took Shamsuddin (not his real name) and his son and nephew, put black hoods on their heads and accused them of being insurgents. Shamsuddin told us that his brother, the father of his nephew, had been killed by a Taliban bomb just eight months earlier. He said it was "impossible" to have the idea that they could be Taliban fighters.

The three men were taken to the area of Kabul where most foreign agencies and missions are sited, including the US embassy, the centre for Nato forces and CIA headquarters.

He described being handcuffed, hooded and beaten over several days, but said that for him this was not really torture. The unbearable thing was to hear the agony of his son.

“There was a window like a hole in the door. I was trying to see what was happening to my son. You know a parent always longs to know what is happening to his child. I could hear the sound of the instrument beating my son. I felt his pain as if it was my own, and I heard my own son shouting and screaming.

“I wasn't normal. Hearing your son shout and scream and call on God. From the sound of the instrument they used to beat him, it wasn't wood or a fist, but sounded like a length of rubber or electric cable. It lasted for an hour each time. They were asking questions, but I couldn't hear what they were asking. I could just hear the sound of him screaming and the sound of rubber or a cable whipping him."

Shamsuddin has since been released, but his son has not. His fate is unknown.

What makes many of the reported cases of torture in Afghanistan so disturbing is not just that the western invasion was supposed to end such practices, but that the Allied forces have, in effect, been colluding in such treatment.

Last year, the high court in London heard testimony from ten men accused of insurgency, all of whom had been beaten by members of the Afghan authorities after being surrendered to them by British or American forces between 2007 and 2010. Their stories make grim reading: "Prisoner X said that metal clamps had been attached to parts of his body. He gestured to his forearms, upper body and chest . . . he had been electrocuted six times. He said that he had been beaten with an electric cable, about a metre long and one inch thick. He was beaten by the commander, a small fat man. He still had marks on his back."

It is also alleged that Prisoner X was raped by a senior Afghan officer at the detention facility in Lashkar Gah. Other stories heard in court included those of Prisoner A, who spoke of being hung from the ceiling and beaten, and Prisoner D, who was electrocuted while blindfolded. Prisoner E told the court that "every night of the 20 days of investigation at Lashkar Gah he had been beaten".

Counsel for the UK Ministry of Defence (the period of investigation covers the tenures of John Hutton, Bob Ainsworth and Liam Fox) has admitted that some of these allegations are "credible" - and even the high court judgment warned that they should not be dismissed.

And yet, a joint investigation by the New Statesman and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows that the world's most powerful military nations have responded not by trying to right these wrongs, but by attempting to sweep away the fundamental provisions of the Geneva Conventions.

The problem is simple, yet horrifying. British troops regularly hand over suspected insurgents to the Afghan authorities, even though torture and abuse are rife in Afghanistan's detention facilities. They do this, too, knowing that it is a breach of international law to transfer detainees to the custody of another state where they may face a risk of torture. This is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Convention Against Torture of 1984, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950).

“The prohibition to transfer a person to a jurisdiction where he or she may be tortured is absolute in international law," says Dr Juan Méndez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture. "The operative part of this prohibition is not the torture itself, but the very risk of torture." And although there has been an official response to allegations of this sort, you could be forgiven for not having heard of it. Called the Copenhagen Process, it has received little publicity. Its meetings are closed. Its full membership is secret. Human rights groups such as Amnesty and other interested non-governmental organisations have been excluded.

What we do know is that it is led by the Danish government and it involves 25 nations (including the US and UK), as well as Nato, the EU, the African Union and the UN. Since 2007, these players have been pushing to establish a common framework for detainee transfers in Iraq and Afghanistan. In grim committee-speak, it aims to produce an "outcome document", which it hopes will receive approval from the UN and individual countries.

The starting point for those around the Copenhagen table is that, while the principles of humanitarian and human rights conventions may be set in stone, 20th-century law is out of kilter with 21st-century conflict. Military nations need a get-out clause from the Geneva Conventions.

Thomas Winkler of Denmark's ministry of foreign affairs is leading the charge. "The dil­emma is . . . [you] have a huge body of law but, when you have to apply the law in these types of conflict or operations, we have met a number of challenges . . . that you detain somebody and that you believe that the individual either is a security threat or a criminal, how do you then deal with it?" he told the Bureau.

Winkler maintains that the Copenhagen Process meetings have been "closed" to encourage openness by the states and organisations involved. He says that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is now attending meetings, and NGOs will be invited to contribute later this year, once the final draft outcome document has been drawn up. The ICRC distances itself from this assertion. A spokesperson says it was invited to participate in the process, but purely as an observer.

The present military rules in Afghanistan say that Nato-led forces have to hand over anyone they capture to the Afghan authorities within 96 hours. So far, the forces have attempted to comply with their human rights obligations by obtaining written assurances from the Afghan government, known as memorandums of understanding, or MOUs. The aim of the Copenhagen Process is to codify these assurances into international law.

As the high court testimony from the ten detainees shows, it appears that these MOUs are not always successful in protecting detainees from torture. Prisoner A told of multiple night-time beatings in an underground cell. Prisoner C recounted being hung from a ceiling for three days and nights. A common theme is the men's inability to identify their abusers - the beatings often took place under cover of darkness, or with the men blindfolded - but in those cases where identifications were made, senior officials were implicated.

“The use of memorandums of understanding is among the worst practices that states are currently engaging in," says Matt Pollard, a senior legal adviser at Amnesty International. "In effect, it is resulting in states bypassing their obligations not to transfer people to risk of torture. Basically states say: 'Yes - I'm not supposed to transfer a person to you if you're going to torture them - so please just promise me you won't torture them.' We've said categorically that that type of practice is actually undermining the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment and other human rights obligations. It's one of the worst practices in terms of its effect on the system of human rights protection as a whole at the moment."

Juan Méndez agrees. "Diplomatic assurances do not relieve the sending countries of their state responsibility for having committed a serious breach of an international obligation." He argues that changes to the way MOUs are used "are unnecessary if the receiving country is not a torturing state and are utterly meaningless if the receiving country is known to engage in a pattern and practice of torture".

Then Méndez goes further, and makes a statement that is remarkably forthright for someone in his position. "In the course of the so-called 'global war on terror', countries have been transferring prisoners not despite the risk of torture, but precisely to facilitate torture - and to obtain the dubious intelligence thus gathered. I fear that an agreed-upon regulation of these transfers will be seen by some [prisoner-] sending countries as a way of legitimising what is clearly wrongful conduct on their part. If so, the agreement will not succeed in curbing torture and may well provide a veneer of legitimacy to it."

It's a view echoed by Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, who says that the detainees' well-being is put second to western armies' convenience. "The US, UK and others with troops in Afghanistan want to be able to capture real or alleged insurgents and interrogate them," he says, "but they do not want to build or run detention centres in Afghanistan. So they do the expedient thing and hand them over to the Afghans. For the most part, they have no idea what happens next.

“It's a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil policy of wilful blindness to the risks to detainees. And, to make matters worse, we know that many people detained in Afghanistan turn out to be completely innocent."

The organisation to which detainees are handed over is the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's external and domestic intelligence agency. Its track record is deplorable and the evidence of torture at its detention facilities is overwhelming. Since 2005, there has been a raft of reports detailing how torture is rife in it and other state institutions.

In 2007, the UN high commissioner for human rights reported that the NDS's use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment was frequent. Every year since then the same concerns have been reiterated.

In 2009, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that "torture was commonplace among the majority of law-enforcement institutions". It identified 398 victims and detailed the methods of torture: sexual abuse; branding with iron bars; use of tools, a lawnmower, tyre rods, staplers; flogging with electric, iron and plastic cables on the back, waist, feet, head, face and other body parts; beating with rods while blindfolded with hands and feet tied; use of electric shocks; victims continuously chained and shackled. The report concluded that no one had been prosecuted for any of these cases.

Even the US state department country report on Afghanistan published in 2010 referred to methods of torture and abuse. These included, but were not limited to, "beating by stick, scorching bar, or iron bar; flogging by cable; battering by rod; electric shock; deprivation of sleep, water and food; abusive language; sexual humiliation; and rape". Against this backdrop, a memorandum of understanding seems a flimsy safeguard indeed.

In 2009, the Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin created a storm when he revealed that, despite an MOU, Canada did not monitor detainee conditions in Afghanistan, and that detainees transferred by the Canadians to Afghan prisons were probably tortured. "According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured," Colvin said. "For interrogators in Kandahar, it was a standard operating procedure."

He said his reports were ignored and eventually senior officials told him to stop putting his concerns in writing. Denmark's Winkler accepts that MOUs are not sufficient in themselves. Central to their success, he explains, is "aggressive monitoring": to try to ensure that the host nation - through the Afghan authorities - sticks to its part of the bargain. "We need the monitoring of not just the individuals transferred but also supervision and the co-operation at a general level with the receiving state in order to ensure that the facilities are there," Winkler told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. "If the receiving state or entity does not fulfil the obligations as part of the MOU, then you cannot transfer."

This is where the central thesis of the use of MOUs by the Copenhagen Process starts to unravel. The UK - which is held up as an example of best practice - signed a bilateral MOU with the Afghan defence ministry in April 2006. Its intentions are laudable: "Ensure that participants will observe the basic principles of international human rights law such as the right to life and the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment pertaining to the treatment and transfer of persons by the UK [armed forces] to Afghan authorities and their treatment."

However, a high court case brought last year by the peace activist Maya Evans exposed the fundamental failings of the agreement. At the time of the hearing, 418 UK detainees had been handed over to the NDS (the number is now more than 600). The main detention facilities are NDS Kabul, known as "Department 17", NDS Kandahar and NDS Lashkar Gah.

The judgment pointed out that "written assurances in themselves do not take matters very far . . . actions speak louder than words". It continued: "UK officials in Kabul reported that despite advice from London, the MOU was meaningless locally. The NDS did not recognise the authority of the Afghan minister of defence to promise anything on behalf of the NDS."

It continues that, because of deficiencies in the monitoring system, "the possibility of other cases of abuse which the monitoring system has failed to identify cannot be dismissed". However, the British judges refused to rule that the transfer of detainees was illegal. Transfers to NDS Kandahar and NDS Lashkar Gah could continue, "provided that existing safeguards are strengthened by observance of specified conditions".

That seems unlikely to happen: the Afghan­istan Independent Human Rights Commission has repeatedly been denied proper access to NDS facilities. During one visit in 2007, detainees were hidden on a roof.

The judgment also described the position at NDS Kabul as "particularly troubling". As it stated: "Little occurred by way of UK visits before the NDS refused all access to the facility in late 2008." Access to NDS Kandahar was limited. At NDS Lashkar Gah, visits were cancelled for security reasons and the character of visits was described as falling "well short of best practice"; guards were present during the interviews, and it was only possible to see detainees in groups with the guards still in earshot.

It was only through the high court hearings that the allegations of torture and abuse came to public attention in the UK. If those in charge of the Copenhagen Process have their way, the accusations are unlikely to surface again.

In the meantime, however, British troops continue to hand over detainees to their Afghan counterparts. The UK Ministry of Defence argues that, with better supervision, the situation has improved, but confirms that accounts of abuse continue to surface.

“We take all allegations of abuse seriously and consider these in all future transfer decisions," an MoD spokesman says. "We can confirm that there [has] been a very small number of allegations received since the judgment was handed down, but cannot give full details as they can only be passed on with the permission of the detainee and may be subject to an ongoing investigation, either by UK or Afghan authorities. Where permission is given by the detainee, an allegation will be passed to the Afghan authorities for further investigation."

As Nato-led forces plan to pull out from Afghanistan, the focus on how western armies can hand over detainees without breaching international law has intensified. Before the "war on terror" the west made great play of trying to engage with torturing regimes in an effort to get them to change their ways. Now, it stands accused of complicity, the result of a cynical attempt to erode the basic principles of the Geneva Conventions, international human rights and humanitarian law.

Angus Stickler is chief reporter at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit organisation based at City University London

Kate Clark is a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network

This feature article was produced in association with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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