Anne Harris: Matt Hancock is winning in the court of public opinion

Reality TV provides escapism in dark times. It also explores the fundamentals of human behaviour

Something happened on I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! last Saturday that shows why popular culture is a serious matter and reality TV is more than a bunch of crazy people in a mad situation.

Dusk was falling fast down under. Matt Hancock and Owen Warner, the young actor from Hollyoaks, were off trying to win some goodies for their fellow campers. The rest were sitting around in their now well-established default mode. B**ching about Hancock.

To be fair to them, this is also the default mode of many, from politicians such as Rishi Sunak to upmarket opinion formers.

“Something about him ... .” The campers were getting into their well-oiled moans. “Slippery ... don’t buy him ... he’s oblivious ... .” On and on it went until suddenly Seann Walsh, stand-up comedian and arguably the most emotionally fragile there, spoke. “I disagree,” he said. “He hears it all. That man has not flinched once. Not from coming in here, not from the trials.” Their universal stupefaction was weirdly eloquent.


Hancock has been asked to do ghastly things. He has been entombed with reptiles slithering over and under him; has dived into tanks with baby crocodiles, crabs and every kind of sea creature with a tentacle; has crawled in confined spaces with snakes trying to stab at his eyes; has eaten fish eyes, camel’s penis and cow’s anus. The list is endless.

For his first six days in the jungle, the public voted for him to face horror after horror. The other campers sat back, basking in his success at bringing back stars that translated into food for all. He made little of it; they didn’t thank him. Charlene White of Loose Women, who got to cook the food he earned for them, refused to share allotted living quarters with him. Her refusal meant another camper spent his nights in deep discomfort as she took a valued camp bed.

Then the public stopped voting for Hancock to do the trials. Something was shifting, but the campers, the politicians and the opinion formers didn’t notice. They carried on Matt-shaming.

Reality TV is easy to ridicule – what, after all, has it got to do with everyday experiences? Sunak deplored Hancock’s presence on the show, saying “the chief whip was quite right to suspend him”. He refused to say whether Hancock deserved the “forgiveness” he clearly craves for his behaviour during the Covid pandemic.

“I think politics can and should be quite noble,” said Sunak. The clear implication is that I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! is not noble – whatever that means – and by extension the 10 million viewers (some 400,000 in Ireland) are indulging some base instinct.

It’s not seemly, that’s for sure. The disreputable and the dull and boring are juxtaposed and the jungle is full of shadows, most of them part of the human condition.

But Walsh, by standing up to his own tribe, did the bravest thing of all. It’s a phenomenon so rare, we mark it when we witness it. Eamon Dunphy did it when he threw down the pen in disgust during World Cup in 1990; Leo Varadkar did it when he spoke out against the Garda whispering campaign against Sgt Maurice McCabe; Máiría Cahill did it when she called out sexual abuse in the republican movement into which she was born and bred.

Sunak may have given a hostage to fortune by saying politics should be noble: it’s hard to see nobility in the treatment of asylum seekers by his home secretary. But the simpler explanation is a quality previously displayed towards Hancock in the form of a spectacular snub. Plain, old-fashioned snobbery.

Politicians, if they want to be great, cannot afford to be snobbish. Abraham Lincoln believed “public opinion is everything”. He thought an elected representative should discern what his electorate wanted and within reason supply it. He went across the United States on horseback to take “public opinion baths”. Reality TV would have saved much of the bum-ache. He would have recognised that, apart from providing escapism in dark times, it also explores the fundamentals of human behaviour. Like the fact that people get savage when they’re hungry.

I’m a Celebrity more than most reality TV shows has resonances of Lord of the Flies. Because the campers are permanently hungry in a field of scarcity, atavism is never far below the surface. With two words – “I disagree” – Walsh stopped that little makeshift civilisation tipping into something nastier. What he identified was Hancock’s stoicism and sheer physical courage.

The great philosophers might consider courage the virtue that guarantees all others, but that is clearly lost on the campers. Boy George spends large parts of his day intoning spiritual chants and the rest of the day spitting such venom about Hancock that one wonders if that’s where the venom extracted from the snakes goes. He has run the gamut of “hating-on Hancock” to “confused”. But Boy George’s shift is way behind that of the public.

Whether it was Hancock’s composure or their disapproval of the campers’ smug Matt-shaming that moved them, the public took to social media. The tabloids, ever alert to public mood swings, went with that. The first person to be voted out was not Hancock, as had been predicted at the outset, but White. A week is a very long time in reality TV. Public opinion is mercurial. It doesn’t matter who wins. As long as it’s not the law of the jungle.