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Netflix’s The Diplomat marks the first time that the British Foreign Office and the US State Department have made a TV show together. In this episode, we examine and decode this ugly stepchild of transatlantic foreign policy, looking at the government agencies and consultants involved in producing it. From the Wagner Rebellion to the JFK assassination, The Diplomat incorporates ideas, themes and talking points that often sound more like a government press release than a romantic comedy set in the exciting world of international relations.

The State Department and Foreign Office in Hollywood

The US State Department and the British Foreign Office both have a presence in the entertainment industry, but not as prominently as police, military and intelligence agencies. Still, they are part of the security state – in this country the Foreign Office technically oversees MI6, has a big influence on military and paramilitary operations, and keeps getting us hooked into coalitions of the mostly unwilling.

I’ve mentioned some of the Foreign Office-sponsored productions before – for example, on the fly on the wall documentary series Our Man In… they filmed inside consulates in the Mediterranean, showing how well the Foreign Office looks after Brits abroad, even Brits banged up abroad.

We also got the feature documentary series Inside the Foreign Office, during the time when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary. While documents have not yet become available (I do know someone who is digging) it’s clear the whole thing was made with their help, and according to their requirements.

There’s the Mitchell and Webb comedy The Ambassadors, which incorporated elements of Craig Murray’s real-life story (albeit without speaking to him). They had extensive meetings with Foreign Office officials to help them put together the script. There’s also been programs on forced marriage, another set in Bangkok airport, and some episodes of Holiday Hit Squad also featuring consular staff.

We’ve also seen the Foreign Office provide filming access and support to some major films, including Spectre (the James Bond flick), Our Kind of Traitor, The Theory of Everything. On Spectre the emails show that a government official was trying to get himself a walk-on part as a minor villain.

They do some weird stuff, for example they made the producers of Downton Abbey sign the Official Secrets Act before gaining access to film on a particular Foreign Office property. On Our Man In… they hired minders to follow the film crew around, make sure they didn’t film anything they weren’t supposed to, and review edits and rough cuts and remove footage they didn’t like.

In June 2014 they hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict – because apparently the wars are fine, as long as no one’s sexual consent is violated. Bomb em, shoot em, throw em off rooftops, burn down their homes, but don’t rape em. This particular bizarrely selective human rights cause has also involved Angelina Jolie, including in videos produced by the Foreign Office.

Across the pond, the State Department worked on Rambo III: Operation Cyclone, they provided some access for research to Veep, but it’s their behind the scenes role that is more important. Cast your mind back to the early 1950s, when Paramount executive Luigi Luraschi was rewriting scripts to fit in with US foreign policy objectives – to make the US look like a liberal, internationalist nation that respected everyone. Except communists, obviously. And black people in the South. And gay people.

But ‘well dressed negroes’ were in, foreign women were not to be portrayed as sultry, two faced temptresses, there were a bunch of concerns. While Luraschi was working for the CIA, the program was taken over by the State Department. This was part of an overall post-war strategy to use cinema to project soft power – to make the world believe the US was not only the best, most powerful nation, but deserved to be because freedom and opportunity. Except for the communists, obviously. And black people not just in the South. And gay people, who were still considered criminal deviants.

This strategy wasn’t simply concerned with content, but also with distribution. Through MPAA President Eric Johnstone both the CIA and the State Department worked to open up new markets, encourage countries to relax their film quota systems – that only allow a certain number of foreign films into domestic cinemas, to protect domestic production. When the US took Germany at the end of WW2 (a country they still occupy) they dismantled the domestic film and TV industry and pretty much replaced it all with US-made productions. They couldn’t do that in most countries, so they used diplomacy and worked with industry leaders to try to accomplish it by other means.

Fast forward to more recent years and we have them trying to get Disney’s Frozen to do some kind of climate change, melting icecaps tie-in, but this failed due to Disney seeing it as in direct conflict with their happy ending brand. While Rapey Joe was at State during the Obama White House he negotiated with current Chinese President Xi Jinping when he was at the equivalent position in the Chinese government. They struck the 2012 deal whereby China would allow larger numbers of US-made films into the country.

That deal ran to 2017, and has since fallen apart and now most US blockbusters don’t even try to get released in China. This has affected box office receipts considerably – the latest Mission: Impossible film barely broke even once you factor in marketing and distribution, in part due to the lack of a China release. The second Avatar movie was released there, which presumably explains how it racked up over $2 billion and I still cannot find a single person who paid to go and see it.

Hollywood accounting at its finest.

Just as an aside, Mission: Impossible 7 (officially Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One) was supported by the Department of Defense, notably the Marine Corps, as well as the British Film Commission, ministries of culture in Italy and Norway, as well as UAE and Abu Dhabi, whose militaries (along with the police and other government agencies and offices) are credited. It’s terrible, but we like to keep track of these things so I thought I’d mention it.

Regardless of Tom Cruise’s slowly melting face, the point is that the foreign policy institutions of governments are also present in the entertainment business in various ways. Part of this is recruitment and positive PR, but it’s also about making them seem far more open than they really are. In reality, most people don’t have a clue what diplomats and ambassadors spend their time doing.

Government Support for Netflix’s The Diplomat

Fortunately, a new series hit Netflix that solves this problem – The Diplomat. It’s a comedy drama based around – surprise surprise – geopolitics, spies and diplomacy. And it had a whole ton of government support and hits on some very curious talking points and story beats.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – what is this show, and where did it come from? It was created by Debora Cahn, a writer on The West Wing who went on to write and produce on the later seasons of Homeland. As such, she attended the spy camps set up prior to each season, where they went to a private club in Georgetown and current and former military, intelligence, foreign service types would waltz in and chew the fat.

It is these spy camps that enabled Homeland to ‘predict the future’ and otherwise situate their storylines in the midst of unfolding events, which often coincided with remarkable accuracy. And it isn’t just me saying this, Claire Danes has said this in multiple interviews and on discussion panels.

With Homeland coming to an end, the world needed a new female-led series about spying and covert operations and how evil the Russians and Iranians are. Most of the recent anti-Russian propaganda has been male-led, after all, so the womenfolk need to be given a chance to catch up. That’s equality for you.

So, with a happy stroke of luck, one of the writer-producers on Homeland came up with an idea to make just such a series. Where did she get the idea? On Spy Camp.

The ambassador she’s referring to in this interview is A Elizabeth Jones, another one of these initial, middle name, surname people. She was ambassador to Kazakhstan during the Clinton presidency, and became Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs under Bush.

Apparently, Beth made such an impression on Debbie that she decided to write a whole TV series about her, and then sell it to Netflix. And as she says, the aim of the show is to heroise ambassadors and other people working in foreign service. It isn’t quite a replacement for Homeland or for Jack Ryan, but feels like it exists in the same televisual universe.

And like those shows, they made liberal use of government assistance. I’m not sure whether the CIA were involved, but the State Department granted access to their embassies in Paris and the new one in London. Not to get all Architecture Monthly about it but I much preferred the old London embassy in Grosvenor Square because it looks like a miniature Langley.

The new embassy looks like a soulless corporate box, with funny shit stuck to the outside supposedly to stop people spying on them. However, if you watch The Diplomat you’ll see dozens of aerial shots and some ground-level scenes where characters are walking in areas directly adjacent, with the big embassy building in the background. There are also a couple of scenes that seem to have been shot on the embassy grounds, including one from inside a car as it goes up this curved tunnel that leads to and from the underground car park.

And in case that doesn’t convince you, real life Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted out a picture of himself with the cast and producers at the embassy in the summer, when the show came out.

So, we know for certain that the US State Department approved and supported The Diplomat. From the credits we also know that the British Film Commission and tax relief program provided funding, and the New York Governor’s Office kicked in too during post-production. The final episode, which is partly set in Paris, also credits Film France, the French Film Commission and the French tax rebate for international productions.

Then there are the five consultants who worked on The Diplomat. Kari Amelung was a ‘senior national security official for the US government’ from 1985 to 2018, including being Counselor of the Embassy for the US Embassy in Rome from 2016 to 2018. Elizabeth Dibble spent 36 years working in diplomacy, in London, Rome, DC and elsewhere. She went on to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Jonathan Freedland is a British journalist who mostly writes for the Guardian, and often rehashes establishment doublespeak, especially when it comes to Israel. Jonathan Powell is a former British diplomat who became Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, working alongside him until 2007 – so, for almost Blair’s entire time in Downing Street, and covering the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo, 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan and the 7/7 London bombings.

That just leaves one man – John MacGaffin, the ex-CIA guy who was the primary consultant on Homeland and set up the Spy Camp before each season.

I imagine by now you’re getting the picture – this is the State Department’s answer to Homeland, but with more jokes. But wait, there’s more.

Naturally, there’s a female CIA character who is the head of station in London but, for once, she isn’t blonde. She’s not even white. She’s doesn’t even wear gray pants suits. She is played by Ali Ahn, who I mostly know for playing one of the traders on Billions.

Ali gave an interview where she was asked about preparation for the role and she said, ‘I have a notebook full of questions like, “What is GHC?” I talked to a couple consultants — women who used to work within the CIA and were chiefs of stations.’ Similarly, Debora said that she spoke to a bunch of ‘tandem couples’ who both worked in diplomatic careers (and other government jobs.)

As such, we’ve got at least two former CIA officers, multiple State Department employees (either current or former), and the State Department itself, along with three different sources of government funding. There’s more. The opening scene of The Diplomat sees a British aircraft carrier, complete with F-35s moving around on the deck, being hit with some sort of missile. While the missile and explosion are evidently CGI, the ship itself is real, and must be a loan from the British Royal Navy and the MOD. And finally, there are a bunch of scenes shot inside the headquarters of the Foreign Office.

Decoding The Diplomat

The show has done well, spending four weeks in Netflix’s top 10 and making the Nielsen ratings (which now include streaming service data, but only sometimes). RottenTomatoes gives it an 83% critic score, but audiences weren’t so enthused, giving it only 52%.

From my perspective, it veers between being quite compelling and funny and being utterly dull and formulaic. They never quite got the balance right between the high stakes geopolitic struggle and the personal character drama. As a result, though it is amusing, the characters are quite well written and the acting mostly strong, it constantly feels like less than the sum of its parts. It isn’t as annoying as recent seasons of Jack Ryan, and at least the story makes sense even if all the twists are a little contrived. It’s been renewed for a second season, and I predict they’ll run out of ideas, viewer numbers will fall and – like so many Netflix originals – it will be cancelled at the end of season two. But I have been wrong before.

Essentially, the story is that an ambassador, Kate, is due to be sent to Kabul but at the last moment, following the attack on the British aircraft carrier, she is sent to London. The carrier was in the gulf, off the coast of Iran, so the Iranians are the obvious suspects. Kate’s husband, Hal, is also a diplomat, one with a fairly stellar career, but their relationship is on the rocks – they’ve agreed to divorce but are still together. So he goes with her to London to help her get set up in her new job, agreeing to leave once she is settled.

However, the twist is that she’s also being primed for the Vice President’s job. The story in this area is essentially set in reality – President Rayburn is Biden, a senile old guy who got the Democrats over the line with the intention of setting up a female replacement once he falls over and doesn’t get back up. But the existing female VP is getting dropped, so the London job is partly about trying to give Kate more public profile before they drop her into the White House.

So we have this triple-layered storyline running throughout the first season – Kate and Hal’s difficult relationship, Kate deciding whether she even wants the VP’s job, and everyone trying to figure out who bombed the aircraft carrier. As I say, the show suffers from trying to be heavy and funny, often coming across as too light for its stakes or too serious for some of the jokes to land. It did make me laugh, but I never took it particularly seriously.

Our other characters are Kate’s deputy, a former campaign manager who is now working as deputy chief of mission. He’s having a relationship with Eidra, the CIA lady who is head of station. There are a bunch of other relatively uninteresting flunkies, but also two key figures in the British government – the PM and the Foreign Secretary. The PM is a condescending, brutish, sexist idiot not unlike Jeremy Clarkson while the Foreign Sec is urbane, handsome and an obvious love interest for Kate.

Indeed, there’s quite a lot of romance-themed or at least relationship-themed drama, feeding into the stereotype that you can’t make a show for women without focusing on sex and men and all of that. There’s also quite a lot of bum, for a show supposedly made by liberal women who don’t approve of the objectification and sexualisation of women in film and TV. Curiously, every relationship we see or hear about is entirely straight. While there’s a fair number of black actors in the show, that there are no gay or bi or otherwise non-hetero people in the world of diplomacy.

My point being that this is another example of the 50 Shades of Rainbow Statism approach to popular culture – they foreground women and black people, but when it comes to sex it’s only hetero allowed. There is a recurring theme of the women actually being in control, both in the personal relationships and in the geopolitical crisis that unfolds, while the men are secondary and a bit pathetic, so the producers were obviously trying to score some points. But the result is that they cannot even mention anything that interferes with the enforced binary of men vs women. A little bit of progressive symbolism, but deep down the show is very conservative.

Meanwhile, the best character in the show is CIA lady – she’s smart, funny, talks in a very blunt way and The Diplomat is always better when she’s on screen. And the whole thing is an advert for the State Department, and the state more generally. It’s very much ‘how to get feminists to join the CIA and/or support nuking Moscow’, but with some good jokes.

Beyond the identity politics, the geopolitical memes are quite interesting. As I say, Kate was supposed to be going to Kabul before the change of plans, and she makes repeated references to her regrets, and the need to rescue Afghans, but curiously only women. Remember the CIA red cell memo from 2010 that highlighted the ‘plight of Afghan women’ as a way of helping restore faith in the war in Afghanistan? This is the TV equivalent of that, showing our protagonist agonising and remonstrating about the failure to protect them, implying once more that the US never should have left, or should re-invade.

Thus, John MacGaffin has not only helped produce a TV show in Homeland that pre-empted the Afghan withdrawal, he’s now jumping on the post-war bandwagon of refocusing attention on how the Americans are so determined to rescue Afghans from the Taliban. Nice work, if the CIA can get you it.

When it comes to the attack on the ship, the fact that it is initially thought to be one ‘enemy of the West’ in Iran, but then it rapidly turns out not to be them, is useful from a propaganda point of view. You can remind people, just like in the film Kandahar, that while Iran might not be up to much at the moment beyond the government oppressing its people, it is still out there, and you should still be scared.

And this is how is plays out in The Diplomat. While Kate is busy doing a photoshoot in a pretty dress, something she hates wearing, Hal is kidnapped by Iranian intelligence. There’s quite a funny scene when the deputy chief of mission ask his CIA lady girlfriend whether this is all a training exercise.

Just to highlight – this is yet another state-sponsored TV show or film that incorporates the ‘is this real world or exercise?’ trope. But the key is that the Iranians tell Hal they didn’t attack the ship, and as proof they show him that they were planning an assassination of a US general while he was in London, in revenge for the Soleimani hit, but called it off so as not to exacerbate the tensions.
Thus, the only proof that it’s not the Iranians is that they do kill people. So, they’re innocent of this one but still a threat to Americans.

With the Iranians declared innocent, they turn to another of the usual suspects – Russia. But why would Russia, in the midst of a war in Ukraine, pick a fight with the British military and hence NATO? This is where the storyline starts to fall apart due to it being so obviously designed to flatter the governments supporting the TV production.

On the one hand we hear endless dialogue about how horrible Russians are, how they’re ‘savaging’ Ukraine, how for them genocide is just a daily occupation and, inevitably, how the Russian mercenaries who feature in the story are ‘raping their way across Libya’. They hit all the drum beats of the song of demonisation – Russians are backwards, effectively the new Nazis, and they’re rapists.

I’ve mentioned before how false or exaggerated stories of mass rapes were used during the so-called Spanish American war to demonise conquistadors, but it also happened with the Germans in WW1. And then the Germans turned that around, using anti-Jewish propaganda in Los Angeles, accusing Jewish studio heads of raping gentile girls, to try to recruit people and gain influence in the movie industry. More recently we saw the same atrocity porn regarding Serbians in Bosnia, ISIS in Iraq and now the Russian military in Ukraine.

So, on that hand Russians are little more than animals, so of course they’d do something like this. But on the other hand it turns out to not be the Russian state who ordered the attack – CIA lady can’t find anyone from the FSB, the oligarchs, Russian military intelligence, the Kremlin, who has knowledge of the order being given.

Instead we’re told that a Russian mercenary firm, active in Libya and elsewhere, run by a guy called Roman Lenkov, did the attack for unknown paymasters. This is an obvious fictionalisation of the Wagner group, who are Russian mercenaries active in Libya and elsewhere. In April, The Diplomat came out. On June 20th the US Secretary of State poses for a photo with the cast and crew. On June 23rd we got the short-lived Wagner Rebellion against the Russian government. In August, exactly two months after the rebellion, Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin died in a mysterious plane crash alongside other senior figures in the group, in what is almost certainly a state-sponsored hit. Whether it was the Russian state or another is not clear to me.

I’m sure you’re all wondering: so what happens to Lenkov, the thinly-disguised Prigozhin in The Diplomat? Does he, by perchance, end up assassinated by a government? Well, it gets a little complicated, but yes. So John MacGaffin not only helped produce Homeland, which predicted the whole ‘Russia is paying Afghans to kill US troops in Afghanistan’ story that turned out to be bullshit, he also helped produce… you get the idea.

Even for me, this is a little spooky. At the time of the Wagner rebellion I wrote an article about how the ‘rogue Russian faction’ either acting independently of the Russian government or actively against it turns up a lot in state-sponsored movies and TV. Goldeneye, The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide all have some version of this, and while Crimson Tide was rejected by the US military the French loaned them use of a submarine. Air Force One, another 90s film, also made use of this meme.

Similar characters turn up in NCIS, 24, Spooks, JAG, The Last Ship and then, a few months before the Wagner Rebellion, we got the third season of Jack Ryan and then the first season of The Diplomat. With the exception of Crimson Tide, as mentioned, every single one of these films and TV shows was supported by the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Foreign Office, MI5 and/or MI6. Every single one – and this is not an exhaustive list. This is surely not mere coincidence.

Getting back to the show – when the British government find out that it was the Russians, whether state-ordered or not, they scramble for solutions. After a lot of buggering around they decide to strike Lenkov’s troops in Libya, but then pull out of that after the Russians themselves tip them off about where Lenkov will be staying – a villa in the South of France. Instead, they launch an operation to arrest him, which turns into an operation to kill him (albeit without the knowledge of the Foreign Secretary and the US ambassador).

So, while the Russian state is not guilty, Russians are still rapist, murderous scum, much like the Iranians or any other fucker who looks at us cock-eyed. Just because they didn’t do this particular bad thing doesn’t mean they can in any way be considered good people, that much is made very clear in The Diplomat.

Intelligence Agency Talking Points Memo = The Diplomat Script

I imagine you’re understanding by now how beneath the bouncy, bingeable exterior this TV series is quite nasty. It has a very American view of British people, but the stereotyping only starts there, and there’s a very curious alliance with real world events that we’ve seen on certain other TV shows in the state-sponsored universe. Indeed, in one other with the same goddamn ex-CIA consultant.

Whether or not the CIA themselves helped on The Diplomat is uncertain, but it does contain a string of dialogue moments that seem to have come direct from an intelligence agency talking points memo. For example, there’s a pointed reference to the Litvinenko poisoning, but they don’t mention his name, merely talk about ‘the guy they poisoned in 2006’, as though it’s established fact that the Russian government killed him. The man himself doesn’t matter, let alone that he accused the Russian government of false flag terrorism, simply that he’s a token of how evil the Russians are. Quick reminder, move on.

Then there’s a guy they thought was poisoned by the Russians – the Iranian ambassador, who collapses and dies in the Foreign Secretary’s office – but he turns out to have had a heart attack.

You see how it works – they propagate the meme, then walk it back by saying ‘but not in this particular instance’, leaving the lingering impression. And it happens multiple times, so it’s clearly deliberate.

Then there’s the description of the special relationship between the US and UK, which frankly resembles Kate and Hal’s semi-divorced status these days.

This is utter bollocks – most of what spy agencies do is spy on other spy agencies, whether friendly or otherwise. Just because you have an intelligence sharing arrangement doesn’t mean you don’t lie to each other, keep secrets, and sometimes spy on what each other are doing. This rhetoric is like wedding vows – an idealised set of rules that no relationship can truly live up to.

There is also a scene where CIA lady explains to Kate how the electronic intelligence sharing arrangement between the US and UK works, even referencing a codename from a Harry Potter film.

Before the leaks attributed to Edward Snowden, hardly anyone knew about this sort of thing, how a request from the CIA or NSA to GCHQ actually takes place. But those documents showed not only this process in detail, but just how many mass surveillance ops are named after songs or movies or books. They’re pretty much rubbing our faces in it at this point.

At a summit to discuss what to do about the Russian problem, Kate also issues forth the claim that the CIA did not kill JFK.  Why did this particular example get used? How did this line find its way into the script? They could have had the character use any number of examples of things that are supposedly untrue or debunked, and the character doesn’t even work for the CIA, nor are they mentioned in the dialogue in this scene prior to this point. It’s quite jarring, when a line like this is torpedoed into a screenplay, put into the mouth of a character who doesn’t normally talk like that, in a moment where no one had mentioned the CIA or John F Kennedy.

Also consider that all these examples came via one of two characters – CIA lady Eidra Park, or ambassador Kate Wyler. Our two female leads, both of which are portrayed as highly competent and often very intelligent, and hence the two most trustworthy people in the show. The Prime Minister is an idiot full of bluster, the Foreign Secretary is nice but a little behind the curve on everything, Hal lies constantly, sometimes for legitimate reasons but he’s certainly not someone the audience can trust. All the miscellaneous foreign ambassadors seem like dodgy foreigners with an agenda, leaving Eidra and Kate to deliver the truth to us, the audience.

And by ‘the truth’ I mean a bunch of stuff that sounds like it was written by a government official for use in the show. Russians are rapey genocidal savages. The Iranians too. Friendly intel agencies don’t spy on each other. The CIA did not kill Kennedy. Stop me when this starts sounding like a State Department spokeswoman being interviewed by MSNBC.

In some ways, The Diplomat is like any other first-gen state-sponsored production, by which I mean the first of its kind. With the DOD and FBI that goes back a century or so, but the CIA only really joined the party in the 1990s, while the State Department and the Foreign Office are relative newcomers. Neither had made a show quite like this before, so in some ways it stuck to the patterns we’ve seen before with other agencies.

That is to say, it pretends to open up the secret world, give you a first glimpse behind the curtain at how things really work. It’s a substitute for genuine institutional transparency, just like those early FBI films starring J Edgar Hoover. But what sets The Diplomat apart is that there’s no newbie, no neophyte. Everyone in the show, more or less, is experienced at what they do. Some are more competent than others, but ultimately this is a show about people doing their jobs well because they’ve been doing them for a long time.

The hook for us, the audience, is not relating to a person coming into this secret world fresh-faced and reacting to it for the first time. The show presumes a certain degree of knowledge from its audience, rather than simply seeking to fill a gap of ignorance with entertainment propaganda. If you didn’t know who the guy was who was poisoned in London in 2006 then you wouldn’t understand that dialogue.

Thus, while this is a first-gen production in some ways in others it is more sophisticated, aimed at an audience that has already watched Homeland and wants a funnier sequel set in an adjacent part of the same world. In yet further ways it is quite naked and dumb – I don’t recall Carrie ever telling anyone that the CIA didn’t kill JFK. I don’t recall Carrie ever giving much of a damn whether the CIA killed anyone or not.