Our culture has struck an uneasy bargain with a particular type of disgraced celebrity. We are willing to put stars with objectionable histories back in the spotlight even after appalling offences – as long as they are humiliated in the process. Rudy Giuliani, the hard-right former advisor to Donald Trump, was revealed as a character on The Masked Singer US this year, while another Trump administration figure, ex-communications director Sean Spicer, was cast on Dancing With The Stars in 2019. In British political culture this is particularly common: Stanley Johnson, George Galloway and a number of other right-wing politicians have appeared on reality shows. The popular claim is that this doesn’t aid their public image, but instead hands them just enough rope to hang themselves with. They are the losers because we, the winners, take pleasure at their expense.
I imagine the bosses at ITV would offer this as an excuse for their decision to cast Matt Hancock on this year’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!. The news caused a public outcry – both because Hancock remains a sitting MP who has chosen to neglect his constituents for several weeks for hundreds of thousands of pounds, and because of his record as health secretary during the pandemic. During that time, Hancock failed to prevent the virus spreading in care homes, broke his own social distancing rules, and oversaw over 150,000 Covid-related deaths. But despite the initial uproar, he has grown in popularity in recent days. Over the weekend, he was voted camp leader by viewers; on social media, once-universal dislike of Hancock has waned, with audiences increasingly finding him “surprisingly likeable”. Even campmates who initially groaned over his arrival have since become friendly with him.
While it is clear to many people that his appearance on I’m A Celebrity is crass, Hancock is also winning people over. And while there is a longstanding precedent for rehabilitation via televised buffoonery, Hancock’s is particularly chilling. Hancock is shamelessly attempting to deflect from his inexcusable political record by cheerfully eating worms on camera – and the British public are letting him do it.
Hancock is well-practised at such a performance. He has long been cast as a harmless court jester in Westminster circles: when he was health secretary the Daily Star repeatedly depicted him on front pages in a red nose and curly rainbow wig, declaring him a “clown”. He has often been the subject of journalists’ chummy tweets for his seemingly naive government proposals, such as when, as minister for digital, culture, media and sport, he launched his own social media app, “Matt Hancock MP”. He has the determinedly upbeat demeanour of someone who has been bullied their whole life, rather than someone who wields inordinate power over others. This presentation distracts from the seriousness of his failures and the ruthlessness of his ambition.
The timing seems particularly calculated: we are collectively at the peak of our coronavirus apathy, two-and-a-half years after the virus began to impact our daily lives and a year on from the first mentions of Omicron. The virus is now causing relatively few hospitalisations and there are fewer new instances of Long Covid. Many of us are keen to avoid talking about lockdowns, deaths, and the worst of the pandemic – and so, unsurprisingly, viewers are willing to turning a blind eye to Hancock’s political record.
All of this would make Hancock an easy candidate for rehabilitation even in the face of a barrage of criticism from fans and the rest of the I’m A Celebrity cast. But criticism from his campmates was short-lived. Though some campmates voiced repulsion about Hancock’s arrival to camera or questioned his decision to appear on the show, few directly criticised Hancock for his failures during the pandemic. Those who did voice their concern focused on his affair and breaking of social distancing rules, rather than his mismanagement of the crisis. And despite these objections to his appearance on the show, these cast members have since decided it would be too awkward to continue to dislike him, instead choosing to separate Matt Hancock, the politician, from Matt, the “good sport” of the camp. This is, of course, exactly what Hancock hoped for.
Total ostracisation or constant criticism may sound harsh, but what is gained from the alternative? As long as Hancock gets to be seen as “fun”, or “game”, even if only briefly, the show whitewashes his reputation and minimises the pain he caused in government. It’s hard not to see the whole series as free PR for Hancock: no matter how many worms he eats, and even if he did face real backlash from the rest of the cast, he still gets the paycheck, the platform, and the public’s sympathy. Every second of normalisation is an opportunity for Hancock to leave behind his prior image.
Allowing Hancock to appear in a light-hearted medium in any capacity – even as the butt of the joke – plays down the very real power he still has as a sitting MP. The past ten years have been a long lesson in the consequences of letting influential figures knowingly cultivate an unthreatening, goofy persona (the parallels are painfully obvious: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Elon Musk).
This season of I’m A Celebrity is full of figures seeking to sanitise their public image. Boy George was convicted of assault and false imprisonment after beating a male sex worker he handcuffed to a wall in his home in 2007. Chris Moyles made disturbing comments on Radio 1 about seeking to take Charlotte Church’s virginity, when the singer was about to turn 16. The comedian Seann Walsh was last in the tabloids when he had an affair whilst appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, leading his then-girlfriend to label him a “toxic gaslighter”. These men are in many ways lucky that Hancock is there to absorb the majority of the public blowback; Hancock’s presence shouldn’t obscure the criticism that each of them are also due.
But as a serving politician, Hancock’s power in society is unique. The inability to recognise this and treat his public rehabilitation for what it is – an offensive misuse of his position – is what will keep the UK trapped in this vicious cycle, participating in the fantasy that we are the winners in this game.