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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Hamilton

The redemptive power of reality TV for disgraced politicians


ITV/Shutterstock

In the court of public opinion, reality TV can be a fast-track for image reform. It appears that British politicians are catching on to this and using it as a tool for post-scandal redemption. Matt Hancock and Nigel Farage are leading the way (through the jungle) for controversial political figures with their appearances on the programme ‘I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!’.


The quickest way to the British public’s heart isn’t integrity, honesty or surrendering to our democratic system, but is in fact as simple as eating nothing but rice and beans in the Australian outback. The previous health secretary Matt Handcock, disgraced over infidelity and the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, went on the show in 2022. His appearance was controversial to say the least, but he ended up making it to the final and ultimately helped bring in over 10 million viewers.


Not only did it boost the waning popularity of the show, but it was also seen to (slightly) mend his previously labelled irredeemable public image, after being heavily blamed for the UK’s high COVID-19 death toll.



ITV/Shutterstock


Image Reform


It seems to be that reality TV is the latest tactic for reforming one’s public image which has been coined by some as ‘Jungle-washing’, referring to the most commonly used show I’m a Celeb.


Now GB News presenter Nigel Farage is following suit. In case you’ve purposely erased 2016 from your memory, or just don’t know who he is, Nigel Farage, although never successful in his bid to be an MP, was the leader of the right-wing populist UKIP party. He has consistently been a leading voice in the anti-immigration space in the UK and was also extremely influential in the manifestation of Brexit.


Although a strong contender for a bit of ‘jungle-washing’, Farage’s appearance on I’m a Celeb could also be for the screen time more than anything, especially after his US speaking tour fail, where on one occasion a total of 21 people showed up.


Whether it’s to boost rankings or because they’ve got something to repent for, I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of this blurring between politicians and celebrities. Maybe it makes you more interested in what they have to say, or maybe you find it annoying, either way it could prove harmful.


Political punishment


We can use this phenomenon to diagnose a deeper problem with our modern political system. If the general public feel like the traditional forms of democratic accountability are not meaningful or effective then who can blame us for embracing alternative methods.


Nobody can deny the catharsis that can be experienced through inflicting punishment on those we see to be responsible for the things that are wrong in our lives: loved ones lost to COVID, inadequate healthcare, low wages and high bills. Especially when we didn’t vote for them. Although some find enjoyment here, many feel that it trivialises these subjects.


While it may be satisfying to watch someone you don’t like fumble on the Strictly dancefloor, it’s also an indication that our traditional channels of political accountability are no longer fit for purpose.


The ability of politicians to rebrand themselves by getting on such a show is a product of the growing apathy within our democracy. A culmination of an unelected government, the lack of a proportional voting system, a weak judicial system and a general trend of corruption and scandal within parliament.


Network responsibility


I’m a Celeb is produced by ITV, a commercial broadcasting network, set up to provide an alternative to the BBC. Because it has no relation to the British government, ITV has little responsibility for unbiased political broadcasting.


The MailOnline reported that Nigel Farage is being paid a staggering £1.5 million for his appearance on screen, becoming the highest-paid contestant ever.


It is impossible to ignore the ethical questions that this raises, and they have not gone unacknowledged by the public; #boycottimaceleb has been trending on Twitter/X and the show reportedly premiered with 2 million less viewers than last year.


A celebrity jury


Another one of the issues with politicians going on such a show is the fact that it then becomes the responsibility of the other celebrities to hold them accountable, and the public looks at them to be a mouthpiece, the way we once did to those we elected. But it’s not what they signed up for and for many of them it is not within their capabilities. It becomes dangerous to give excessive airtime to political figures without putting them in an arena with voices that can effectively counter.


Not only this but the producers get to decide what’s included and therefore have a large amount of power over influencing public opinion. Unlike for the BBC, there is not the same level of accountability and producers can cut and allocate airtime however they see fit, usually, that will be in line with maximising views and profit.


It might be hard to regard a show presented by Ant and Dec as deeply detrimental to our political system and for now it’s not. However, it’s not impossible to see how this could open up doors to some pretty dystopian stuff. Maybe in a decade we’ll have a similar show but just for politicians only. Sounds a bit hunger games-esq to me.



ITV/Charlie Sperring/REX/Shutterstock


I have to hold my hands up and admit that maybe I wouldn’t have given it this much thought if it was a politician I liked and supported, but either way it’s an important conversation to be having. Whether you would love or hate to watch your MP try to become King or Queen of the jungle, we’re probably only going to see more politicians using reality TV for their personal and political agendas. And while I can think of more than a few MPs I wouldn’t mind seeing eat a kangaroo scrotum, it’s important that we continue to keep in mind how this allows public viewership to be manipulated for political gain.

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