Matt Hancock and the Political Metaphor of Reality TV

Matt Hancock and the Political Metaphor of Reality TV

As former Health Secretary Matt Hancock enters ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! camp, Emma Schofield wonders what his shift from politician to reality TV contestant says about the state of our TV culture.

It’s that time of the year again. The nights are drawing in, we’ve all remembered why we hate the taste of pumpkin, and vowed never to eat it again, and thoughts are inevitably turning to how many Christmas party invitations we can get away with politely declining before we’re deemed as being antisocial. Right on queue, there’s another pack of fame-hungry, low-grade celebrities, flanked as usual by a motley crew of wanna-be celebrities, crowding on to our TV screens, prepared to abase themselves in whatever way necessary to secure a book-deal, a stint on another reality show or just fifteen final minutes of fame.

Except this year, it’s different. This year the tired format, Z-list line up and worn one-liners from Ant and Dec have been revived in the form of a saviour – enter former Health Secretary and sitting MP, Matt Hancock. You’d have been forgiven for thinking that he was there for the publicity, that perhaps this unlikely casting was linked to Hancock’s forthcoming book about his experiences in the pandemic, about which we know very little, except that it most definitely isn’t going to be published by Harper Collins. You might even have been forgiven for assuming that this was linked to Hancock’s previous attempts to build a career for himself outside of politics, such as his inexplicable appearance at Capital FM’s Jingle Bell Ball last Christmas, or his attempt at breaking into the world of podcasting earlier this year.

But no, Hancock has stepped in to explain to us simpletons who thought that this was the latest in a growing line of attempts to grab fame, that his appearance in the jungle is “a metaphor for the world I work in”. Too bad for his constituents that in order to participate in this political metaphor, their actual MP will be absent from his real-life job as their political representative for several weeks. 

I know what you’re likely thinking, if it bothers you that much, just don’t watch it. You’re right, that would be the obvious answer, except, it isn’t as simple as that. As much as I like to take a stand about things, even I know that my refusal to watch I’m a Celebrity is not going to put much of a dent into ITV’s staggeringly high viewing figures. Not watching is the most futile attempt at a protest there is. For all the condemnation of Hancock’s decision to enter the jungle, for all the Conservative Party may have removed the whip and engaged in public tutting at his choices, it’s already starting to happen. Already, that slow progression from political villain to figure of comic value is starting to take place. ITV have set that train in motion and now they’re standing back and reaping the rewards in terms of viewing figures and attention. The media have had a field day and Hancock’s entry to the jungle has only just featured on the programme. There has already been mocking of his introductory video, sniggering at his appearance in the obligatory press photos where Hancock poses in his jungle uniform, almost gleeful predictions from commentators and MPs alike that he will be forced to participate in all manner of revolting trials as part of the programme.

Which of course is exactly what Hancock wants. We’re all talking about it, we’re all joining in with the collective outrage, millions will tune in this evening and in the coming nights to gawk and criticise and levy insults at him. None of that matters, it’s all part of the masterplan. We’re talking about Matt Hancock again and for every night that he sits on our TV screens and is forced to squirm his way through the show’s infamous bushtucker trials, we’re being desensitised to the real Matt Hancock.

Let’s just remind ourselves that this is the man who, as Health Secretary, presided over tens of thousands of deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic, a man who last appeared daily on our TV screens when he was defending his policy decisions and declaring daily death figures for a global pandemic that had long been predicted. The same man who was later captured on CCTV making out with his then-aide, at a moment when the rest of the country was saying goodbye to dying loved ones over video calls. Yes, we live in Wales and health is devolved, but in this case that point is largely irrelevant. During the pandemic I endured the majority of a pregnancy and labour alone while Matt Hancock was Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. I attended family funerals where I wasn’t allowed to sit with my family, or hug anyone, while Hancock was having a great time.

I can say with absolute certainty that watching him shut in a box while rats climb over him, or chewing on a kangaroo anus while Ant and Dec stand by looking repulsed, is not going to make me feel any better about that. I cannot even begin to imagine how traumatic his appearance on prime-time TV is going to be for the bereaved families and friends currently enduring the enquiry into the pandemic.

Which brings us full circle to the main issue, that ITV have decided that this is okay. In the coming weeks Hancock will be talked about in schools, workplaces, homes and Whatsapp groups. There will be memes, gifs, jokes and endless material for satirists and comedians. None of this would be possible if it wasn’t for the fact that someone, somewhere, has agreed that it is acceptable to offer this platform to Matt Hancock, a platform where he can tell his version of events, broadly unchallenged, where he can be transformed into a figure that we mock and smirk at from the comfort of our sofas. A platform from which he will almost certainly go on to talk about himself even more afterwards, to anyone who will listen, in an endless parade of media interviews. A platform to promote his book. A platform from which he can gradually continue that process of desensitising us to his role in the pandemic and helping us to collectively forget the numerous dubious decisions that came with it.

We talk so frequently about the need for accountability within the media, for responsibility among those who make the decisions about what is broadcast and how our news is reported. Perhaps it’s time we started applying similar scrutiny to what our MPs are allowed to do while in the job and to what messages our TV culture is sending out. Maybe Hancock plans to discuss that with his esteemed colleagues during his time on the show, perhaps between discussions on whose turn it is to empty the camp toilet, and how best to feed a dozen people with a single pigeon. Who knows, perhaps it’s all part of the metaphor?