Politicians on reality TV: pure narcissism or shot at redemption?

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Rishi Sunak has joined the chorus of criticism aimed at Matt Hancock for joining I’m a Celebrity, saying that he was “very disappointed” at the former health secretary’s decision.

Speaking to The Sun, the prime minister said that “it’s incumbent on politicians to earn people’s respect and trust” and “they do that by working hard for their constituents, as the vast majority of MPs do”.

Hancock has also faced criticism from other politicians and from the bereaved relatives of Covid victims, but he has defended his decision by saying the TV show is a “powerful tool” to reach young people. 

‘Narcissism and money’

“Why can’t politicians resist the siren call of reality television?” asked William Atkinson on CapX. “The answer is for the same reason as everyone else: narcissism and money.”

Nevertheless, as Atkinson noted, some stints are successful rebranding exercises for politicians.

For instance, Nadine Dorries managed to “leverage” her unsuccessful 2012 appearance on I’m a Celebrity into a “successful career as a Boris partisan and pot-boiler authoress”.

When he joined Strictly Come Dancing, the former Labour cabinet minister Ed Balls cast himself as “the tubby, ludicrous, execrably poor dancer who the public could laugh at between the good stuff”. He “erased any memory of his failed political efforts through his entertaining lack of talent”, Atkinson added.

Could similar magic work for Hancock down under? Lembit Öpik, a former Lib Dem MP who also appeared on I’m a Celebrity, told The Guardian that if the former health secretary “plays it right, it’s already made him a celebrity, but it will give him a whole new direction for the rest of his life”.

‘Career-curtailing’

“The move is not without jeopardy,” wrote Lucy Fisher for the Evening Standard, where “unguarded moments, un-PC comments and cringe-worthy antics can be career-curtailing”.

More broadly, “as we head into a winter that threatens to be bitterly challenging for many Brits, a period of dull dedication from our politicians is called for”, Fisher wrote. “We could certainly do without our MPs undergoing bushtucker trials or donning sequins on reality shows.”

MPs “play a dangerous game by going on reality TV”, agreed Politico’s Paul Dallison, and “no one watches this show to find out about Tory policy, they watch it because low-level celebrities are forced to crawl through maggots”.

Some appearances have been acutely humiliating, noted The Guardian. “In what’s perhaps the most talked-about appearance by a politician on a reality TV show, [George] Galloway appeared on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006” and “pretended to be a cat, purred and feigned to lick cream from actor Rula Lenska’s hands”, it said.

However, appearing on reality television before you become a politician has one very successful example: step forward former Apprentice host and the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump.

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