Following former Conservative health secretary, Matt Hancock’s appearance on hit UK reality show I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, debate surrounding the strange phenomenon of politicians’ participation in reality television have arisen once more.
The show features a group of British celebrities who spend three weeks living without home comforts in the Australian jungle, regularly participating in daunting ‘Bushtucker trials’ to win food for their campmates. After Hancock’s controversial appearance, many argue that it is simply not something that politicians – especially working ones – should be involved in.
Indeed, UK politicians are no strangers to featuring on I’m a Celebrity – or on reality TV in general. Strictly Come Dancing has starred former Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls and former Tory MP Edwina Currie in 2016 and 2011 respectively, although Balls proved far more popular with the public. Currie also appeared on I’m a Celebrity in 2014 – and, contrastingly, nearly made it to the final three – as did former Conservative culture secretary Nadine Dorries in 2012, who found herself first to be voted off the show.
Of course, the merging of politics and reality television isn’t an exclusively British phenomenon. Take former US president Donald Trump, for example: the face of the US version of The Apprentice, or Caitlyn Jenner, reality television sensation turned Governor of California candidate. But it does appear to be particularly prominent in the UK. Here, the list of politicians who have participated in reality TV seems almost endless: it also includes former MP George Galloway’s infamous stint on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, and former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe’s appearances on Strictly Come Dancing and Celebrity Big Brother in 2010 and 2018 respectively.
However, Matt Hancock’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity stands out for a multitude of reasons – primarily because he was the face of the UK government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as of one of the biggest scandals that occurred during it. As Health Secretary for the Conservative government during the pandemic, Hancock oversaw some of the government’s most disastrous decisions. These included the unlawful hospital discharge policy which saw elderly patients – many of whom had Covid - moved into care homes at the beginning of the pandemic, allowing the disease to spread rapidly amongst a highly vulnerable group. Thousands of care home residents died as a result. Indeed, two Parliamentary committees deemed the UK's early response to the pandemic, of which Hancock was the face, to be “one of the UK's worst ever public health failures”.
The following year, Hancock was involved in one of a series of scandals in relation to Conservative MPs’ behaviour during the pandemic. He was caught breaking the social distancing rules that he himself had set – which kept those in different households apart and prevented many from seeing their loved ones in hospital – by cheating on his wife with his aide, Gina Coladangelo, at work. This ultimately led to his resignation from his role as Health Secretary.
Needless to say, Hancock has become one of the most unpopular politicians the UK has seen in years, with less than 20% of people supporting his potential return to Cabinet following his resignation in 2021. His appearance on reality television was thus a hugely risky decision. Due to the fact he was still a working MP when he entered the show, he was almost instantly suspended from the Conservative parliamentary party and criticised by several of his colleagues, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Meanwhile, the public – and his fellow celebrities on the show – criticised him extensively for his recent political and personal history.
But Hancock clearly saw reality TV as a golden opportunity to save his image – and perhaps even rebrand himself. On the show, Hancock defended his decision by emphasising his intentions of showing the “human” side to politicians and seeking “a bit of forgiveness” from the public. He took the opportunity to use the show as essentially a PR platform, defending his actions in government to his curious and occasionally critical campmates, whilst also conveniently discussing the release of his upcoming book 'Pandemic Diaries'. Of course, the reported £400,000 he received to appear on the show likely aided his decision, too.
Not only could Hancock attempt to redeem himself through using such a platform to explain, defend, and promote himself, but it’s also likely that he understood the value of participating in what is essentially the modern-day version of the medieval stocks. I’m a Celebrity indeed puts its celebrity participants through often humiliating trials for the public to watch, the participants of which are largely chosen by the public via voting.
Indeed, Hancock was voted for five consecutive trials when he first appeared on the show, suggesting the public were certainly entertained by placing him in such situations. And he ultimately became popular enough on the show to make it to the final and achieve third place – which remains rather baffling given the fact that his popularity amongst the general public remains low. The aforementioned celebrity appearances on the likes of Strictly and Big Brother have also had a similar effect, whereby politicians have gained some form of redemption by willingly sacrificing some of their pride for the sake of public entertainment.
So as much as seeing our politicians essentially publicly humiliated - whether it be through eating a vulgar animal part or murdering an attempt at ballroom dancing – can certainly bring us laughs and entertainment, is it worth it? Is it right? Less so because of the humiliation, but more because of the impact it has upon our political discourse?
Hancock is a perfect example in support of the argument that politicians should not feature on reality television. His appearance on I’m a Celebrity had serious implications, risking trivialising the effect of his actions in government. And this is not the last we’ll see of him in this kind of context, as he is now set to appear on Channel 4’s Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins in the coming months. In fact, his appearance on I’m a Celebrity may just be the tip of the iceberg in regard to the future of Hancock’s public image, as he seemingly moves away from the top end of politics and into a different realm of public perception.
It is thus easy to argue that sitting MPs should not partake in reality television shows: when they do so, they are abandoning their duties to their constituents – which is central to their role as a public servant – in favour of a pursuit which can be assumed to be motivated mostly by ego, financial gain, or both. But when a politician has a track record like Hancock, it becomes an even deeper issue. Even ITV and the producers of I’m a Celebrity have faced backlash for allowing him on the show in the first place. Not only did he neglect his obligations to those who voted him into his job, but he also chose to go on a frivolous, light-hearted reality show mere months after he made decisions which led to the suffering and deaths of thousands of people and evoked fury in the general public.
All in all, the issue with merging the world of politics and reality television lies in the trivialisation of serious political actions and responsibilities. Politicians are not celebrities, they are public servants – and they should act as such, certainly at least whilst they remain in positions of political power.
Regardless of the future of Hancock’s political career, his participation in I’m a Celebrity has made one thing clear: there are some crimes that cannot be forgotten by the public, no matter how far one goes in the attempt to “seek forgiveness”. And, frankly, politicians with a track record like Hancock’s simply have no place on shows made for light-hearted fun. As a spokesperson for the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group stated: “The fact that he is trying to cash in on his terrible legacy, rather than showing some humility or seeking to reflect on the appalling consequences of his time in government, says it all about the sort of person he is”.