Hancock's Barf Hour
The former Health Secretary's presence on I'm A Celebrity is a sick joke but you can't trust the media's predicted punchline.
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Covered in slurry, Matt Hancock is happy. Eating camel penis and cow anus, Matt Hancock is delighted. In a tank with a crocodile, Matt Hancock is ecstatic. Hancock’s presence on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! breaks the format. A man with a long-term humiliation fetish — witness the infamous parkour video from 2018 or that time he went swimming in the Serpentine, resembling an otter particularly prone to falling for crypto scams — cannot be broken by Bushtucker Trials. What some of the public mistake for punishments are pure joy for Hancock because they are attention.
As Catherine Mayer, who lost her beloved partner Andy Gill at the beginning of the Covid pandemic writes, seeing Hancock “scramble among bugs and slime [does not] feel like restorative justice”. She continues:
For [bereaved families] this is far from a joke. It’s a punch in the gut. It’s pretty unfunny for Hancock’s constituents too, taxpayers whose money was squandered on corrupt Covid procurement, social care and health workers left underprotected and underpaid even as Hancock clapped them. It’s pretty unfunny for anyone who followed the rules he set and broke."
The pretence of most of the press and media coverage of Hancock in the jungle so far is that he will be humiliated in the end and that his desperate need for validation and redemption will not be fulfilled. But the post-politics careers of Anne Widecombe and Michael Portillo suggest otherwise. The “Portillo moment” of 1997 was swiftly followed by the Portillo TV commissions of 1998, and Widdecombe sashayed from comments about Michael Howard having “something of the night about him” to being something of the shite on Strictly Come Dancing.
Hancock played a central role in the death of thousands of elderly people — if only Harold Shipman had stuck around he might have got the ITV casting call given his meagre 250 body count — and funnelled hundreds of millions in public money to friends and Tory party donors for often useless PPE at the height of the pandemic. His office clinch was symbolic of so much more. But the memories of TV and radio producers are short and British light entertainment’s capacity to find space for ghouls is immense.
In the avalanche of Hancock clown show coverage, one exchange has predictably gone under-reported. On Friday’s episode, in a conversation with Seann Walsh, the other campmate legally required to be described as a “love rat”, Hancock explained:
I've got like 20 years of answering the question I want to answer, not the one that is given, right…. in politics it is called the pivot. And so you have to give enough link to the question that it doesn't look like you're avoiding the question. Whilst pivoting and a good pivot is admirable
Later, Walsh said:
I've never seen a politician talk about how they dodged the bullets. And he was there just going 'look, this is how we do it'.
Hancock’s presence on I’m A Celebrity… is the pivot. Even the debate about whether he should be on the show and the amount of money he has been paid (£400,000 according to The Sun) is a better one for him than a discussion of the details of what he did as health secretary. The TV appearances — on I’m A Celebrity and SAS: Who Dares Wins? (recorded but not yet broadcast) — combined with his forthcoming book, co-written with source-burning, dubious-pig-rumour-pushing horror Isabel Oakeshott are designed to both put Hancock’s side of the story out there and make him seem ubiquitous ahead of his appearance at the Covid inquiry next summer.
When the BBC published a story headlined I'm A Celebrity: Matt Hancock asks for forgiveness, it was doing Hancock’s PR for him. His presence on a reality TV show means he’s now being covered by entertainment reporters, which explains the soap opera recap tone of the BBC coverage:
Matt Hancock became emotional as he told his I'm A Celebrity campmates that what he is "really looking for is a bit of forgiveness".
The former health secretary was once again being grilled by campmates about the actions that led to his resignation during the Covid lockdown measures.
But while Hancock expressed regret over breaking Covid guidelines, he defended his overall record as health secretary.
While the piece goes beyond the immediate reason for Hancock’s resignation and includes criticism from fellow campmate Chris Moyles (“I still think he's not telling us the full truth,”), it gives lots of space to his justifications and makes a lot of what another contestant, ITV News’ Charlene White, called his “very human reaction”.
In The Sunday Times, its media editor Rosamund Urwin wrote about the strategy — which is probably too grand a word for it — behind Hancock’s decision to go into the jungle (The PRs behind Matt Hancock’s ‘honesty’ including Gina Coladangelo). It provided the opportunity for some stinging quotes from anonymous sources…
A Hancock acquaintance said: “They talked about how they had done the most important jobs they would ever do — and now Rishi is prime minister and Hancock is eating cow’s bum and sheep’s vagina on TV.”
… but also for the official Hancock line to be reiterated: He’s in there to raise awareness of dyslexia by… eating cow’s anus and sheep’s vagina. Urwin’s piece is balanced and brutal but it focuses again on the soap opera elements of the story; Matt Hancock as the puppy dog student who got together with his undergraduate crush in the end and only had to torch his career and betray his family to do it.
Elsewhere in the same paper, Matthew Syed — never far from the saddle of a high horse — made excuses for Hancock while performing his distaste for the spectacle (I’m sorry, but humiliating Matt Hancock is not just harmless fun). He writes:
I hold no candle for [Hancock], by the way, and think he was foolish in the extreme to engage in that clinch in defiance of rules he had imposed upon others, and engaged in a dereliction of duty by flying to Australia when he is supposed to be serving his constituents. But I never believed, as some of his fellow contestants seem to, that he is responsible for thousands of Covid deaths…
… I am certainly not saying Hancock handled the pandemic perfectly. I just think we should acknowledge that ministers were grappling with an unprecedented crisis, with expert opinion divided.
This is a disingenuous argument wrapped in the tissue paper thin pretence of ‘rationality’, something of a Syed speciality. It is easy to be glib in the pages of a national newspaper while suggesting you are, in fact, being terribly wise. Syed rolls his eyes and asks, “do these stars really believe that Hancock personally unbottled the coronavirus and unleashed it on an unexpecting world?” No. But like many of us, they believe that Hancock’s combination of hypocrisy and incompetence made things much worse. To wave the pandemic away as “an unprecedented crisis” is to pretend that there were no warnings and no wargames before.
While Syed howls about the cruelty of I’m A Celebrity… — and it is cruel, mostly to the animals it uses as props — and pretends “desperation for fame at any cost juxtaposed with the voyeurism” is a “quintessentially modern tale”, the problem in Hancock’s case is that it is harmless fun. Aside from a scorpion sting and a confrontation with a snake, Hancock is unhumiliated, unpunished, and unbothered.
Whenever he returns from a Bushtucker Trial, Hancock basks in the attention of the camp and the praise he receives for earning meals for the campmates. His elevation to camp leader after a public vote and defeating Mike Tindall in a task has only increased his enjoyment; now he has a special chair to sit in and ‘important’ decisions to make. The intention of producers and public alike is to make him unbearable to his fellow contestants, of course, but that doesn’t matter to Hancock; he feels like he’s winning.
For The Sunday Telegraph, Victoria Coren-Mitchell argues the best thing “for us all” — who’s this “us” she’s talking about? — would be for Hancock to be crowned King of the Jungle. Going full Helen Lovejoy (“Won’t somebody think of the children!”) she writes:
… the more he is punished and demeaned, surely the worse it is for his children? They must yearn to be proud of him. They must hope for his well-being. It’s paradoxical: the reason he should be made to suffer is the reason he shouldn’t be made to suffer.
The best result, really, is that he wins. That he’s made King of the Jungle. That he’s so successful, he doesn’t bother going back into politics. Because his children deserve to be proud of him, but he doesn’t deserve to represent his constituents in Parliament. He’s just not a good enough man. And that really won’t be a problem if he’s a celebrity.
There is no version of this where his children don’t have to cope with the harsh reality that their father is Matt Hancock.
In a lip-pursing, pearl-clutching column for The Times today, the recently knighted Trevor Philips argues that:
… politics is not performance art. I guess the MP for West Suffolk and darker Australia has his eyes fixed on a future as a TV celebrity. A perfectly laudable ambition; the nation needs to be entertained. But his deployment of slugs, snails and a kangaroo penis in lip-trembling pursuit of “forgiveness” while an MP demeans public service.
It’s a set of ludicrous claims delivered with a comically straight face. How is “politics not performance art” in the country that made Boris Johnson prime minister? And how is the buffet of bugs and bollocks any more demeaning than the things that many MPs do when they believe they’re far from the unblinking eye of a TV camera?
Sunday night’s episode of I’m A Celebrity… was a succession of metaphors for British politics: Hancock digging through a bathtub of offal in search of reward, trapped in a room full of snakes which is less unsettling than sharing space with Jacob Rees Mogg, and returning to camp declaring: “Don’t get too close, I smell of cockroach.” How could anyone have been expected to notice the difference?
Everyone is pretending. Ant and Dec are pretending to be appalled by Hancock, who the producers paid a six-figure sum to secure; Hancock is pretending to feel ashamed; his fellow contestants are pretending to be morally superior, and the columnists are pretending to be outraged rather than delighted with what good copy this all makes.
The honest reactions came from the pigeons flapping to escape Hancock, the scorpion that stung him, and the snake that tried desperately to strike him; it knew it was in the presence of one of its own.
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