Laura Slattery: Matt Hancock the World Cup warm-up act in TV’s theatre of bad dreams

Feelgood goes out of fashion with I’m a Celebrity’s nauseous contestant choice set to segue into Fifa’s Qatar disgrace

The fish-eye tacos were just for starters. The dishes were served in rapid succession, doused in producers’ glee: cow’s anus, sheep’s vagina (“tasted like lamb chops”), camel’s penis (“soft and crunchy at the same time”), a skewer of dead cockroaches with a blended cockroach dip.

And yet will anything Matt Hancock puts down his throat on I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! taste as bad as Qatar 2022?

It seems unlikely. The ITV show is merely adjusting viewers’ palates for the nausea that lies ahead.

These are strange and uneasy nights to be a consumer of television, with the torrid spectacle of the UK’s pandemic health secretary’s mirthless jungle foray set to bleed seamlessly into the World Cup of Shame, the month-long nadir of FIFA’s slow-motion disgrace.


No human has died in the making of the first tactical monstrosity, but that shouldn’t be the height of the bar to cross. I’m a Celebrity has, since 2002, been a bastion of winter amusement. Stripped nightly across the ITV schedules, it is presented in a cheery haze of geniality and light satire by Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, and is loved by viewers and advertisers alike. Last year, its finale was the most-watched non-sporting programme on Virgin Media Television, its Irish broadcaster. Every ad break overflows with freshly hatched Christmas spots.

As dark evening diversions go, I’m a Celebrity is relatively feel-good and harmless, or at least it has been ever since its makers stopped offering live insects as food and contestants were told to kindly not slaughter rats in the name of rodent risotto.

Alas, this year, after two Covid-constrained seasons stuck in a Welsh castle, ITV went in a different direction: the feel-bad one. It paid a fat fee to Hancock, a sitting MP, to come to Australia to have his brass neck tarred and feathered – literally – in prime-time.

Predictably, the voting public is selecting Hancock for every trial and, equally as predictably, the ritual tortures are reinterpreted by him as opportunities for heroism, the attention only feeding the gormless narcissism and self-serving delusion that was the hallmark of his political career. Bitten by scorpions, hissed at by snakes, he is loving every minute.

That is more than can be said for his campmates. Within seconds of his arrival, you could see it dawn on their faces that their experience would not be the jolly blend of humiliation and indignity they signed up for, but a much more serious experiment in which their reactions to Hancock become a litmus test of their integrity.

Those suffering post-pandemic trauma are appalled on their own behalf. The more clued-in celebrities have also correctly anticipated that public sentiment in Britain to the man who oversaw the care home debacle, was knee-deep in a “VIP lane” procurement scandal and broke his own guidance on social distancing is one of anger and upset, and that this is much too real and too recent for his presence to be reclassified as entertainment.

After spending last year’s series ripping into Partygate to sharp effect, Ant and Dec can do no more than laugh with non-committal vagueness, unable to fully articulate either viewers’ motivations or those of their producers. I mean, who’s going to be on next year? Suella Braverman? Sepp Blatter?

Blatter, the vainglorious former Fifa president, pops up on Fifa Uncovered, a compelling new Netflix documentary series. Convinced that his lack of personal support for the Qatar bid in 2010 gets him off the moral hook, he is even more phenomenally pleased with himself than Hancock, deploying phrases such as “my conscience is clear” and “I can sleep well”.

Nobody is forced to watch Hancock’s absurd attempt to rehabilitate himself in jungle khaki, nor is it compulsory to embrace a winter World Cup held in a sportswashing petrostate that tramples all over human rights

This series on Fifa corruption has four hour-long parts – an example of content determining form. It begins with Blatter’s forerunners in the 1970s, a decade in which Fifa was also no stranger to dictators, and traces how football’s world governing authority arrived at the theatre of bad dreams that is Qatar. The short answer is greed, but let’s throw in venality and megalomania while we’re here.

The tournament will go ahead despite the documented exploitation, abuse and deaths of migrant workers since Qatar’s triumph – a scandal too huge for anyone connected with Fifa to properly contemplate it.

Instead, we hear repeated claims along the lines of sunshine being the best disinfectant and convenient assertions that because the Qataris eventually promised some labour reforms – thanks to the efforts of human rights groups, not Fifa – this is enough to justify its trip to the desert.

Then there is Qatar’s criminalisation of same-sex relationships, another horror that Fifa simply does not care about. Let’s not rehash how a World Cup ambassador, former Qatari footballer Khalid Salman, described being gay last week, but safe to say it was not the sort of message that Fifa sponsors Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa, among others, usually endorse.

Broadcasters limbering up to cover the tournament will acknowledge all this grimness either in passing or in extended, sombre segments between talk of team selections and tired legs. But acknowledging shouldn’t be automatically equated with helping. The media has been compromised by Fifa’s decision-making too, with journalists in Qatar restricted from filming anything much beyond the pitches and teams instructed by Fifa to “let football take centre stage”.

Of course, nobody is forced to watch Hancock’s absurd attempt to rehabilitate himself in jungle khaki, nor is it compulsory to embrace a winter World Cup held in a sportswashing petrostate that tramples all over human rights. This ethical quagmire has an easy escape route for many – the option to switch off.

And yet I’m sure it used to be mostly only the news that left people feeling depressed. Now it seems vast, commercially important slabs of the television schedules are occupied by quease-inducing own goals that exclude some viewers and make others feel complicit. That seems worth remarking upon. Viewers want to enjoy what they watch, not feel dirtied by it. Don’t they?