Just like our medieval ancestors would go to watch criminals being humiliated in the stocks in the town square for entertainment, we now watch our political leaders eating kangaroo testicles on prime-time television. For the past two years, two of British politics’ most divisive figures have entered the Australian jungle on ‘I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here’ — first, former Health Secretary Matt Hancock; then this year, a man who describes himself as ‘Mr. Brexit’, and who others describe with a four-letter word beginning with C, Nigel Farage.
Put frankly, this growing trend of turning politicians into reality TV celebrities is infuriating. It feeds in to the populist playbook, allowing politicians to present themselves unchallenged as a “man (or woman, although we haven’t had to see Liz Truss or Suella Braverman in the jungle — yet) of the people”. It infantilises our political discourse; to much of the public, Hancock is now “the guy who went into the jungle and did well”, rather than “the Health Secretary who completely failed to protect elderly care home residents from a deadly pandemic.” This is exactly the kind of reputational revitalisation Farage wants.
Hancock is now “the guy who went into the jungle and did well”, rather than “the Health Secretary who completely failed to protect elderly care home residents from a deadly pandemic.
Of course, politicians turning into reality stars is nothing new. We all remember (sadly) Ed Balls dancing ‘Gangnam Style’ on Strictly a few years ago, and he has since gone on to become a fixture of reality TV; Hancock seems to have some burning desire to become a beta version of Balls. Although I’m very cynical about this, thankfully it mostly remains the preserve of ex-politicians — Hancock is leaving parliament at the next election, and Balls waited until he lost his seat in 2015.
My problem with Farage’s appearance in particular is that he is still a major voice in British political life. At October’s Conservative Party conference, in between dancing with Priti Patel, he told Politics Home “I’d be very surprised if I were not Conservative leader by 2026.” He is considered a leading contender to replace Rishi Sunak as Tory leader after the next election, if the party swings even further to the right, as anticipated.
For the past month, this potential future leader of the Conservative Party has been given a platform to preach his politics by ITV, completely unchallenged. There is no Emily Maitlis or Andrew Neil in the jungle to hold him accountable, someone who knows the political facts and can challenge Farage when he inevitably uses the show to get on his soapbox.
This has been demonstrated in Farage’s frequent clashes with fellow contestant and YouTuber Nella Rose. Although Rose’s willingness to challenge Farage on issues like racism and immigration (joined by contestant Fred Sireix) is refreshing, it becomes rapidly clear that Nella, Fred or any other contestant is out of their depth trying to debate with a man who spent two decades as an MEP and a decade as UKIP leader. This therefore leads to inevitable social media discourse praising Farage, helping to rehabilitate his public image.
And Farage’s public image is certainly one in need of rehabilitation. This is a man who has done more damage to British politics than anyone else, with a Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum that overtly played on racism and xenophobia, such as that infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster. This is a man who, as a schoolboy, allegedly sang Neo-Nazi songs and proclaimed pride that he shared his initials with those of the National Front. This is a man who, in 2019, shared dinner with a collection of right-wing racists and conspiracy theorists. This is a man who ITV have decided to give a platform.
This is a man who has done more damage to British politics than anyone else, with a Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum that overtly played on racism and xenophobia
For the record, I have no issue with politicians like Farage being allowed to express their views, irrespective of how reprehensible I find them. I do have a problem, however, with active politicians being allowed to express their views without proper forums of accountability and debate — the same principles would apply if someone on the left did the same as Hancock or Farage. If a politician wants to air their views on TV, they should stick to Peston, not ‘I’m A Celebrity’.
Me writing this column does exactly what Nigel Farage wants to do. It gives him attention. Although my decision not to watch ‘I’m A Celebrity’ can barely count as a boycott (I think I’ve probably watched a single episode of the show in my entire life), it seems much of the British public agree with me — viewing figures for the show have plummeted. Although people took a degree of sadistic pleasure from seeing the man responsible for the pandemic (mis)management humiliated on TV, it seems they haven’t felt the same about seeing the former UKIP leader’s naked butt cheeks.