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The Chinese Google

Baidu is the search engine of choice for 85 per cent of China’s net users. But what kind of window on the world is it when it claims Tiananmen Square is nothing more than a tourist attraction?

Imagine you meet some people from China and they ask your views on the 1989 demonstration in Trafalgar Square, when the British army killed thousands of people protesting against Margaret Thatcher's poll tax. Then they talk about their spiritual hero, a religious cult leader in Northern Ireland, whom you vaguely recall seeing traduced in the media as a conman. Finally, they congratulate you on the Nobel Peace Prize won by a British thinker of whom you've never heard.

None of what your Chinese friends say about Britain makes sense to you. You go home a little unsettled, but your suspicion that they are deluded - or perhaps just brainwashed - is confirmed by a few Google searches. There is no mention anywhere of the massacre, the religious leader or the thinker.

Sounds implausible? That is the situation in China in relation to Tiananmen Square, the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo - even among the internet-savvy youth. And some responsibility for this state of affairs must fall on the Chinese equivalent of Google, a fast-growing search engine named Baidu.
Just a few months ago, I was in a bar in a provincial Chinese city with a group of postgraduate students at a decent, if not leading, university. After a few drinks, tongues were loose. One particularly feisty MBA student, who had given herself the western name Lily, after Lily Allen, identified herself as a bit of a rebel. "Everybody with education hates the Chinese government," she said.

On my iPad I happened to have a BBC2 documentary from 2009, China's Capitalist Revolution. It was freeze-framed at the point where the lone "Tank Man" is seen in Tiananmen Square. Curious to know what these bright young Chinese knew about the events of that day, and about him, I showed them the footage. They looked confused. "Have you ever seen this?"

I asked. Lily was the first to speak. "I don't get it. What movie is this?" she asked. I explained that it was BBC news footage.

The students remained baffled. There was a wifi connection in the bar, as there is almost everywhere in China, so I logged on to Google. In spite of the "Great Firewall of China", the state apparatus designed to monitor the internet and censor material unwelcome to the authorities, Google often works as well as in the west. But the students stopped me. "No," they all said, "not Google, Baidu."

Baidu dominates the search market in China - all the more so since Google abandoned its mainland-based search operation last year. Its existence is the result of a chance comment made to its chief executive, the US-educated Robin Li. In the early 1990s, Li was working on a Master's degree in computer science at the State University of New York and was stung by a remark from a professor: "Do they have computers in China?" He became determined to change the perception that China was technologically backward.

He went on to work on Wall Street and, according to Baidu, patented an internet search method he called RankDex shortly before a certain Larry Page patented a different method that became Google. When Baidu was set up in 2000, there were fewer than a million internet users in China, but it is now the search engine of choice for some 85 per cent of China's 470 million avid web users, who spend 20 hours a week on average online. It also operates Baidu-branded social networking and other sites. If growth of internet use in China continues on its present curve - that 470 million figure is expected to be 750 million within five years - the Nasdaq-listed Baidu could soon be as big a search monopoly and revenue power plant as Google. Google's profits, at $7bn, currently dwarf Baidu's, which are roughly $0.5bn. In July, however, Baidu reported a 95 per cent increase in quarterly profits, up to $253m, and its shares have jumped 65 per cent this year after more than doubling in 2010.

Let the music play

At about 400 million, Baidu already has almost as many users just in China as the 425 million Google has worldwide. Furthermore, the Baidu-using ranks expand every day as more Chinese citizens become "netizens". So confident is the company of its potential for profits that last month it voluntarily reduced its own income by agreeing to stop linking users to western websites where you can download music illegally, which is almost a Chinese tradition. Instead, Baidu has signed a groundbreaking deal with Universal Music, Warner Music and Sony Music to offer copyrighted songs on a new music platform called Ting! - Mandarin for "listen".

Baidu is China's window on itself and the world, its ultimate arbiter of reality, the source of truth for a quarter of humanity. It is rapidly becoming nearly as important as the Communist Party - perhaps more so, because the broad masses trust it implicitly but grumble incessantly about the ruling elite. "Baidu" means "hundreds of times", and comes from a Song Dynasty poem about searching for a rare beauty among the teeming crowds. Its logo is a friendly-looking paw print.

However, as a de facto Chinese institution, although privately rather than state-owned (it is registered in the Cayman Islands), Baidu is obliged by Chinese law - probably against the will of its westernised principals - to work within the government's ever-stricter censorship parameters, thereby bolstering its obsession with stability and "harmoniousness". The recent celebrations of the Communist Party's 90th anniversary required executives of the country's main internet companies - Li the former Silicon Valley entrepreneur among them - to gather in Shanghai to sing revolutionary songs and wave red flags. Li reportedly declared at the event: "Socialism with Chinese characteristics drives the development of the Chinese internet." It is hard to imagine Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who says he would love to extend the site to China, where it is now blocked, going through the same rituals to keep the communist leadership sweet.

China's increasingly vocal consumer jour­nalists sporadically accuse Baidu not just of “collaborating" with the party, but of selling all-important top rankings to state-owned and private commercial interests, including some that sell fake pharmaceuticals. (It is only fair to add that Google's dealings with adver­tisers are similarly being investigated, in its case by the US justice department and the European Commission.)

China's super-intelligentsia see Baidu as working hand-in-glove with both the Communist Party and often disreputable businesses, but any scepticism about its integrity had not affected my group in the bar. So we switched from Google to Baidu and put in the search term "Tiananmen". The students - who were certainly sceptical about these alleged massacres - agreed we could put in the Pinyin (Roman) letters as Baidu works fine with both these and Chinese characters. What came up was hardly surprising - a list of 53 million very interesting tourist and historical references, but none, so far as we could see, related to anything untoward happening in 1989.

More interestingly, when we put in "Tian­anmen" and "1989", every one of the few hundred references was in English or another western language. The results were impressive. Surprisingly, the first one came from the state-controlled People's Daily online, where by paragraph two we were reading that the 1989 "protest by pro-democracy supporters ended when hundreds of these protesters were killed by government troops in the streets leading from the square". The students, none of whom was old enough to remember 1989, were curious, but remained unconvinced because the content we were finding was not in Chinese. When we tried again, with "Tiananmen" in Chinese, we were greeted with a warning in bold Chinese characters that read: "According to relevant laws and regulations and policies, some search results have not been shown."

The internet, and a knowledge-hunting tool such as Baidu in particular, has presented a big challenge to the power of China, even with 50,000 internet police patrolling its electronic borders. This was a country where authority spoke and the public shut up, where the dictator dictated. Not any more. In 15 years it has gone from a culture where hardly anyone had a telephone to one of the most connected societies in the world. Hundreds of millions of people chat, around the clock, with friends and family on QQ, the Chinese Windows Messenger, from their computers and mobile phones. And China has an estimated 200 million bloggers, producing trillions of words a day for public consumption.

Yet such is the high level of patriotism-cum-nationalism that, despite the background noise of complaint about the government and bureaucracy, even dissidents accept a bit of inconvenience, such as being mysteriously excluded from obscure, foreign bits of information on Baidu, as the necessary price of being part of the world's greatest nation. They can communicate and inquire day and night about millions of subjects, from love to business to celebrities to recipes. What does it matter if a few dull, worthy political topics are off-limits because they weirdly upset the powers that be?

Not only that, but even the masses, who remain hazy about recent history, are powerfully aware that the life they live thanks to China's special brand of communism is incalculably better than it would be if China had stuck to hardline Maoism - or had never become communist and remained feudal. Being a Chinese citizen is not easy, but it's fantastic for the vast majority of people compared to any time in recent Chinese history. Their trusted friend Baidu with its big, floppy paw print, plus Tencent QQ and Sina Weibo (the Chinese equi­valents of Twitter) and RenRen and Kaixin (Chinese Facebook), make it that much more fun and sociable. "I love Baidu," Lily told me in the bar, her friends nodding in agreement, "because if you want to know something about China, why would you ask a foreigner or trust what he says? In China, we say, 'If you want to know something, just Baidu.' Nobody would say, 'Just Google.'"

A Baidu TV commercial made some years ago has stayed in many young netizens' minds, even though it never made it on to TV and was shown online only. It shows a bumbling white foreigner, representing Google, trying to pick up a girl at a wedding some time in the Ming Dynasty. He speaks badly accented, ungrammatical Chinese and gets nowhere. Then a character representing Tang Yin, a painter/poet of the era, corrects his Chinese and gets the girl. The message is clear: you need a Chinese search engine for Chinese searches.

Astrid Chang, a mainlander from Beijing who is studying for an MPhil in anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has identified what she calls a "nationalist paradox" in the diaspora's dealings with the censored web on the mainland. Even among people who have long lived abroad, she has found, there is still a desire to defend China against foreign criticism, though they may also feel ashamed of their government and recent Chinese history.

At home, she says, "Freedom of speech is much more of a problem than freedom of in­formation. If you're searching for something like entertainment news, or help with a school essay or a new cover for your iPhone, Baidu is fine. And if it's not, people always find a way to discover the truth. They can access Google."

Baidu's director of international communications, the US-born Kaiser Kuo, points out that it is rare for Chinese people to want information about China from overseas sources. The US state department may have pledged $19m in May to help blocked internet content make
it through to China, Iran and other states that censor politically sensitive material, but Kuo suggests that Chinese citizens may be left nonplussed by the move.

“It's a kind of hubris, this belief that truth resides in the world outside China, that everyone must be clamouring to get out," he says. "The fact is that the vast majority of people simply don't bump up against this. They're not interested any more than you are in reading Portuguese-language sites.

“That's not to trivialise the problems of people who do want more information. As with all things, to make sense of how the internet works here you need to have a high tolerance of cognitive dissonance - to be able to keep two contradictory things in your head at the same time. But it's also true that the internet in China has become a fully fledged public sphere where people are exchanging a greater volume of increasingly critical ideas."

China is complicated and its firewall is also vastly more subtle than is often portrayed. Take the 50,000 techies, in and out of uniform, who patrol the web. In truth, this figure understates the numbers who censor content, given that the country's internet service providers are obliged to monitor output on their own networks before it reaches the internet police. RenRen, a social networking site similar to Facebook, has 500 internal monitors.

Cat and mouse

Baidu won't say how many net police it has on its campus outside Beijing, but I learn from a Canadian-Chinese former employee that it operates an automated censoring system on its sites to filter out flagged words, including close homonyms and Pinyin versions.

All posts on Baidu's social networking site go into one of three buckets - green for posts with nothing "unharmonious", red for objectionable and yellow if there is ambiguity, in which case a decision is taken by a human being. A tiny proportion of time is spent blocking problematic foreign content - the company is far more concerned with stopping internal debate online.

Yet China's internet monitors are bound to be defeated by the scale of their task. There are more censors per online head than there are food safety inspectors to protect the population from the much more urgent problem of contaminated food. But, as Kuo points out: "It's a tiny fraction of a per cent of traffic that's monitored. It's a game of cat and mouse, but played on a continent-sized field where there's a handful of cats and just gazillions of mice, most of whom are very smart mice."

Furthermore, there are battles within the bureaucracy over who censors what. At best, it is organised chaos. This year the government announced a new cyber-policing body to oversee the 14 government units that have a hand in controlling the online sphere, but its terms of reference are vague.
According to Lifen Zhang, editor of the Financial Times's Chinese site, which recently moved from London to Beijing: "Different levels and different authorities all have a hand in the fire. It isn't only the foreign media that are subject to heavy-handed censorship. I have heard many examples of government organisations and websites being subjected to the same treatment. At provincial level, people want to make their website credible, so they will try to bypass their internal firewalls."

Ftchinese.com often pushes the censorship boundaries further than other sites yet is rarely blocked - probably, it is thought, because government ministers rely on it for untainted information. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Zhang says, it was far more critical of official Chinese conduct than, say, the BBC - but was not blocked.

Discuss internet censorship in China for any length of time, and it becomes difficult not to conclude that the country's attempt to control the web will fail. Within minutes of last month's fatal bullet-train crash near Wenzhou in south-east China, hundreds of thousands of bloggers and micro­bloggers, some of them reporting from inside the wrecked train, drowned out the weak attempts by officials to play down the disaster and developed into a powerful chorus against the government in general. The clamour for transparency over the causes of the crash - along with the inevitable conspiracy theories - was such that, within days, Premier Wen Jia­bao was visiting the scene and explaining, most unusually for a Chinese leader, that he had not been able to make it earlier because he had been unwell.

The comment was widely interpreted as meaning there had been disagreement among the leadership over how to respond to a disaster whose causes, because of the internet revolution, and Twitter-type sites in particular, could no longer be covered up. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences noted in a report on new media, published just before the crash, that microblogs have become one of the main original sources of information that "arouse public opinion", and that this constitutes "a certain risk to ideological security".

But even in China, web censors are mostly young, and can only be assumed to be curious to know the truth behind such events, once routinely dismissed by official media as "one of those things". "I've met these guys from the secret police, the Public Security Bureau," a Chinese web entrepreneur told me, "and because they know the kind of information that is held back from the public, I'm sure some of them are especially curious, in private, to learn what's really happening in the world."

Those in the private sector helping the government keep a lid on the web are likely to be similarly unwilling to let outright censorship survive much longer. "These are cool guys, but they are working in one of the strictest regulatory environments in the world," the Canadian programmer said of his time at Baidu. "It's not North Korea, not even Iran. But the authorities don't care how you do it as long as it gets done, and the consequences of not getting it done can be dire indeed.

“Nobody there is so stupid as to think the users prefer a sanitised, bowdlerised internet experience. What they want is unexpurgated and Baidu wants to give them that experience in so far as is possible. If that means being liberal in their interpretation of official strictures, then they are. Absolutely nobody there wants to be some willing, eager tool of oppression."

Jonathan Margolis writes on consumer technology for the Financial Times

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

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