News from Nowhere: Political Reality
We cannot blame Mr. Hancock for heading to New South Wales. For it was we – we who vote for media stars, entertainers, outlandish personalities, and crazy clowns – yes, it was we who sent him there.
The sight, earlier this month, of a disgraced Health Secretary being forced by repeated public votes to undergo horrific ordeals, as he lived rough in a bug-infested jungle, might start to give us ideas as to how future institutions of democracy might work.
Matt Hancock crawled through dark tunnels while buckets of slime, slurry and live insects were poured over him. He consumed fisheyes and cockroaches, along with the lesser parts of larger beasts. He was chastised by fellow contestants as to the misconduct which ended his ministerial career – an extramarital embrace that breached his own pandemic guidance on social distancing. His behaviour, one said, was "a big slap in the face for everyone". He even tearfully pled for his campmates’ and his nation’s forgiveness.
These were clearly acts of public punishment and penance. They performed the latest phase in the ongoing transformation of the political arena into a media circus at its starkest and its cruellest, red in tooth and claw.
So far this season, in the Whitehall farce into which British politics has descended, we’ve dispatched a Chancellor and two Prime Ministers. The first scalp of the Sunak Cabinet took only a fortnight to rip from the new regime. The lords of the press have tasted Tory blood and found they like it. This is the law of the jungle: politics as a blood sport.
Mr. Hancock’s broadcast tortures began the same week that it was reported that more than three thousand offensive and threatening tweets are posted to British MPs every single day. This is the grim reality of UK politics in 2022.
Yet the televised humiliation of Matthew John David Hancock seemed to have been calculated as the price he’d have to pay for his redemption in the public imagination. It might be thought that there was something cynical in his shows of contrition. Even as he’d apologised for his romantic follies, he’d continued to defend his record in government, despite the billions wasted on useless protective equipment, the pandemic contracts awarded to profiteering cronies, the devastating lateness of lockdown decisions, and the unlawful transfer of untested patients into care homes on his ministerial watch.
This was why a campaign group representing British families bereaved by the pandemic flew a banner above the TV show’s jungle camp demanding his removal from the series. As one of their spokespeople put it, he wasn’t a ‘celebrity’ at all, but had been the Health Secretary who had presided over ‘one of the highest death tolls in the world from Covid-19’.
Or, in the words, of a popular talk show host, ‘he was very bad when he was in office and he’s – remarkably – even worse now he’s out of it’.
One might be forgiven for suspecting some degree of disingenuousness in Mr. Hancock’s displays of shame and regret. This was after all a man who, while in office, had once, during a live news interview, famously appeared to feign tears of joy in response to the start of the rollout of the UK’s coronavirus vaccination campaign.
Before he entered the jungle, Hancock had declared that reality television was a "powerful tool to get our message heard by younger generations". He was the most recent in a sequence of high-profile British politicians who have submitted themselves to the trials of reality television in bids to broaden the audience for their ideas. Some of these efforts have seemed rather more sincere than others.
It was sixteen years ago that the formidable figure of George Galloway had led the way on Celebrity Big Brother. Mr. Galloway had, as he said, seen his appearance on the show as an opportunity to speak directly to large audiences of politically disengaged young people about "racism, bigotry, poverty, war" and "the need for a world based on respect."
Although Mr. Galloway’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq has since been accepted as mainstream wisdom, it was still considered radical in 2006. The programme’s producers had therefore edited out most of his politically progressive messages. Few reality television makers are in the business of mass edification. Many merely seek to entertain millions with their petty acts of scorn and spite. That’s the very nature of the beast. Quite a few politicians have seen their nobler ambitions betrayed in this way. It turns out that, at least as far as reality TV is concerned, the revolution really will not be televised.
Others have however had rather less idealistic reasons for engaging with the genre. A decade back, future Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries was suspended from the Parliamentary Conservative Party when she headed to the Australian jungle to feature briefly on the very same show on which Matt Hancock has this month appeared – prompting his similar suspension.
That series has also featured a former leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik, Boris Johnson’s father, and former Health Minister Edwina Currie.
Ms. Currie has also appeared on Strictly Come Dancing, as has former Prisons Minister Ann Widdecombe and former Schools Secretary Ed Balls. Vince Cable went on while he was serving as Business Secretary. Various news anchors, and even the BBC’s chief political correspondent, have also done that show.
The current Leader of the House of Commons – and former Tory leadership contender – Penny Mordaunt once featured on a reality series in which celebrities had to perform feats of high diving. She famously managed a spectacular bellyflop, one which would anticipate the epic fails of her later attempts to secure the keys to Downing Street.
The ridiculous Tory backbencher Michael Fabricant also provoked general mirth when he was accused of wearing a wig on a show called Celebrity First Dates. This embarrassing scenario was only mildly mitigated by the fact that he (along with his strange blond mop) was already a national laughingstock.
Earlier this month, Mr. Fabricant responded to the news of his friend and colleague Matt Hancock’s stint in the jungle by revealing that he had himself turned down several offers to appear on that show, and by admitting that his own appearance on Celebrity First Dates had been "awful" and "cringe-making".
By contrast, one of the more respectable and dignified attempts to blend politics with reality television came in 2010 with Tower Block of Commons, when five MPs were given the opportunity to experience the lives of those surviving on state welfare payments in some of the country’s most deprived housing estates.
Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith had dropped out after the first episode and was replaced by the ubiquitous Nadine Dorries. The three remaining participants – one from each of the main political parties – for the most part, conducted themselves reasonably well. At the time, I had the opportunity to speak to them about their experiences on the programme.
Liberal Democrat Mark Oaten had told me that he felt that "getting politicians away from Westminster" was "one way to reach out to more people". He added that living in a tower block had taught him "a thing or two."
Tory Tim Loughton said that the programme had shown the format’s "potential to engage more people in the political process" and to "challenge common misconceptions about all MPs being out of touch." (Nevertheless, Mr. Loughton this month condemned Matt Hancock’s appearance on reality TV, calling him a total idiot – or, specifically, an "absolute prat".)
Oaten and Loughton’s reasons for appearing in the programme were very similar to those offered by politicians of all ideological persuasions to explain their participation in such shows. Labour’s Austin Mitchell was however rather less convinced of the value of the experiment. He’d expected to be joining a programme which would set the assorted parliamentarians on a "voyage of discovery" to take a "serious and concerned look at the lives of the people in the blocksز" Instead, he said, the producers seemed to want to "make fools of MPs by showing that they can’t handle the realities of hard livesز"
This is of course the essence of reality television, a genre which tries to seduce its subjects by playing on their vanities, but which offers its audiences their pleasures in scenes of those subjects’ ritual humiliations. The ancient Romans used to throw Christians to the lions. Today, we throw our people upon the mercies of the reality TV makers and the tabloid press, institutions which, though sometimes prone to moments of sentimentality, know very little mercy at all. At least the early Christians didn’t have to nurse their wounds on an after-show following the horrors of the Colosseum.
Of course, one of the reasons why many politicians appear on such shows is that they tend to have such confidence in their own charisma, often at odds with the public’s perceptions, that they believe that any kind of media exposure can only serve to enhance their popularity and prestige. After all, his stint on a reality TV show hardly hurt Donald Trump’s aspirations towards a political career. And his frequent appearances on a comedy panel show gave Boris Johnson the limelight he needed to kick-start his trek towards Number Ten.
What they fail to notice is that Johnson swiftly graduated from lowly panellist to host, and that Trump’s TV appearances had always portrayed him in the position of absolute power. He was never going to have been a wannabe apprentice himself. His broadcast fame may have made Donald Trump into what he is today, but it didn’t change him. It merely endorsed and reinforced his pretensions to, and delusions of, infallibility and omnipotence.
Even the loss of an election hasn’t been enough to dampen that self-absorbed, ardour. His trademark narcissism was of course back on view for all America to see in the boasts, lies and slurs with which he fuelled his declaration, earlier this month, of his plans to stand again for the presidency.
Trump’s view of the world reflects the sadistic perspective of so much reality TV: a realm in which also-rans are just losers, and you’re no one if you’re not the boss. Thus, when the Liberal Democrats’ eccentric MP Lembit Opik appeared as a mere contestant on the British version of The Apprentice, it did little to boost his political career. (Mr. Opik now hosts a regional radio show.)
And nobody expects any of the hopefuls in this autumn’s new reality series, Make Me Prime Minister – a Westminster take on the Apprentice format – ever to get their feet under the Cabinet table.
The Times newspaper’s chief political commentator appeared on the latter show, putting the would-be premiers through their paces. He observed that, when his friends heard there was to be a new reality show about politics, there was a common response: "The whole thing has been a reality show for years."
In the 1990s, the actor, author and comedian Stephen Fry was briefly hired by the British Labour Party to contribute to the writing of its leaders’ speeches, after publishing an article which had argued that the successful statesperson should be seen as an amused wit rather than as the butt of the joke. In recent years, however, British voters have tended instead to favour the excesses of slapstick politics and have repeatedly chosen to put the most ludicrous of its court jesters into positions of ultimate power. This has of course resulted in the diminishing of respect for our elected representatives and in a deficit of trust in our democratic systems, leading in the most extreme and tragic cases to the murders of parliamentarians from both sides of the House.
It has also led to the broadcast appearances of senior politicians clambering through pits of crawling invertebrates in the Australian jungle. That is, in effect, the logical endpoint of the absurd trajectory of this brand of politics. We cannot blame Mr. Hancock for heading to New South Wales. For it was we – we who vote for media stars, entertainers, outlandish personalities, and crazy clowns – yes, it was we who sent him there.