Order of the Jungle?

Paula Keaveney

Man traveling crosses wooden bridge over river in the jungle, wearing backpack.

You can almost sense the frustration. Once upon a time former health secretary, Matt Hancock was guaranteed attention in the Commons, and a podium place at a nightly televised pandemic press conferences. 

Contrast this with his appearance in the Commons in December 2021 where he sat in an emptying Commons Chamber waiting to speak to a handful of MPs about dyslexia .

Fast forward to today and he now prepares to take part in the reality show – I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here.

Talking during the inevitable post-announcement controversy he claimed this was a way of going to where the people are and raising issues dear to his heart;

“I want to use this incredible platform to raise awareness, so no child leaves primary school not knowing if they have dyslexia” he told one newspaper.

Hmm.

Matt Hancock is not the first serving or active politician to go down the reality route.  Nadine Dorries took part in I’m a Celebrity while a serving MP.  Kezia Dugdale was still an MSP when she went into the jungle. The Lib Dems’ Brian Paddick went from his campaign to be Mayor of London to a slot on Get me Out of Here. Elsewhere Vince Cable popped up on Strictly Come Dancing’s Christmas Show, the then Lib Dem MP Julia Goldsworthy was on Channel Four’s The Games and George Galloway entered the Big Brother House (of which more later).

While the participants may justify their participation – in Cable’s case Ballroom Dancing was a genuine hobby –  their colleagues are not always as sanguine.  Serving MP Hancock swiftly lost the party whip, as did Dorries before him.

When I hear politicians talk about using reality programmes to raise serious issues I want to ask them if they have ever heard of editing.  I’m a Celebrity and its ilk may well involve constant filming, but it doesn’t involve 24-hour viewing.  And of course producers want drama and shock, not a seminar on worthy issues. Who can forget the George Galloway cat footage from Big Brother?  He went in saying he would talk about Palestine.

Yet should politicians rejects all such offers?  During the Thatcher years Matthew Parris, then a Conservative backbencher, accepted the challenge of World in Action to live for a week in Newcastle on the amount of social security paid to a single man. His attempts to cope, and his conversations with others, were filmed – and embarrassingly for him he ended up running out of money.

Parris, and the viewer, learned something from the programme and it provided a compelling and accessible way of focusing on the issue of unemployment and benefits. Parris is now a Times columnist and regular broadcaster.  His TV experiences clearly did him little harm.

The reaction to Matt Hancock’s decision however has been almost universally negative. After this, it is difficult to see any serious political job offers being made. 

Potential fun for us though – armchair and popcorn at the ready.

Paula Keaveney is Senior Lecturer in Politics.  She has previously worked in Public Relations.

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