A quick brief on Matt Hancock. Hancock was the U.K. government’s health secretary during the pandemic, renowned for handing out cushy contracts for things like PPE to friends of the conservative Tory party, pushing policies linked to tens of thousands of deaths, and generally appearing to be a total shit-eating creep on television.
But that doesn’t cover his notoriety. Hancock cemented his place in history in the summer of 2021, when CCTV footage was leaked showing him enjoying a passionate extramarital make-out session with one of his aides, a video that proved he broke his own social-distancing guidelines and prompted people in the U.K. to wonder whether it was possible to die of cringe. He has the energy of a dorky uncle that you wonder if it’s bad form to swap the place settings at a wedding for, so you don’t have to sit next to him hearing about how his foray into classic car collecting has given him a new lease of life after his divorce. Someone whose desperate need to be liked radiates off him like heat off tarmac despite looking like he would be cold and clammy to the touch.
And now, a little more than a year later, people in the U.K. got to watch this man—one of the most widely loathed of our countrymen—eat the genitals of exotic animals, get covered in barbecue sauce, and crawl through pits of live snakes and spiders.
I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! is a reality show that had a short-lived U.S. version in the mid-2000s, but here in the U.K., the program has been going strong for the past 20 years. It’s hosted by two of our foremost TV personalities, Ant and Dec, a lovable pair of guys from Newcastle whose bond is so strong that they lived next door to each other for over two decades. Each year, about a dozen B-to-C-list celebrities are chosen to live in the Australian jungle together, undertaking notoriously stomach-turning tasks in order to win privileges, and hoping eventually to be crowned King or Queen of the Jungle via public vote.
Hancock was a sitting MP whose announcement that he was going to abandon his duties in order to appear on reality TV on the other side of the world prompted his expulsion from the Tory party and dismay from the general public. Yes, there is a certain amount of schadenfreude to be had watching this man, who oversaw health policy that resulted in thousands of needless deaths in the U.K., chomp his way through a camel’s anus. But it is all so, so undignified. The sordid situation, and the national uproar that followed, came to an appropriately stupid end on Monday night, as Hancock came in third in the show’s finale, behind a former footballer and a soap-opera actor. He won’t be anyone’s king.
Why did he do this? Why do politicians degrade themselves in this manner again and again? A friend said to me recently that in the U.K., politics is the lowest form of show business, which sounds right. There is a bizarre pipeline from somewhat-disgraced member of Parliament to reality television show star here, a pipeline that for the most part seems to work the other way around in America. Perhaps the most famous example is George Galloway, the sometime Labour MP who turned the stomachs of an entire nation when he pretended to be a cat and “lapped milk” out of the hands of an actress on Celebrity Big Brother in 2003, a clip of which is widely available but I can’t in good conscience recommend that you watch.
Hancock’s justification for being on the show was that he wanted people to “get to know the real” him. Also, to promote his dyslexia-awareness campaign, which it took him weeks to even mention once on the show. But what isn’t clear is why anybody should care who the “real” him is. Why do politicians seem to think that their personality is relevant beyond their ability, distinctly lacking in Hancock’s case, to do their jobs? Why is there no division between a life in the spotlight as a public servant and an entertainment entity?
More than anything, his appearance on the program demonstrates a queasy slippage between the role of public official and celebrity. Many politicians view politics not as a means by which they can improve the lives of the people they represent, but as a stepping stone on the path to personal fame. And for as long as politicians court this kind of attention—Hancock performed far better than expected on the show, and placed disconcertingly high in the public vote—we will see them debasing themselves on television. Because as much as we all hated this attempt at reputational laundering, millions tuned in night after night. And ultimately, it’s the ratings that matter.