Matt Hancock went into I’m a Celebrity hated and came out jungle-washed. No wonder politicians love TV | Zoe Williams

From Boris Johnson on Have I Got News For You to Ann Widdecombe on Strictly, television lets the most divisive figures reinvent themselves. Why do we let them get away with it?

As the celebrities are indeed got out of there (and hats off to Jill Scott – I said she should win) a new phrase is born: jungle-washing. It’s when you go into the I’m a Celebrity … jungle as a politician despised from every angle, and come out of it just a regular guy, trying his best. The mechanics are opaque: Matt Hancock didn’t do anything special. He is neither altruist nor schemer, tough guy nor gadabout; you couldn’t pin anything on him that’s remotely like a personality. And yet the viewers saw a person in there anyway, and he finished in the top three.

The entire offer of his presence on the show was that it would be a chance for some meagre revenge: for everything that could have gone better during the pandemic; for every excess death and dodgy PPE contract; for each hypocrisy; hell, for the rampant destructiveness of the past 12 years. Hancock’s bland, rosy face was just waiting there like a dartboard, but the darts never came.

There are competing explanations for all this. The two strongest are “shy Tory” and “counter-suggestible fair-mindedness”. The shy Tory hypothesis is that viewers are essentially just voters in the electoral off-season: we all say we hate the Conservatives, but only some of us mean it. To maintain my faith in humanity, I prefer the second theory, which is that, as exciting as it is to be part of a baying mob, nobody wants to be set up for it: we won’t jeer to order. The more obvious it is that spite is required, the more we tap into our fairer sides. What if this villain is just a regular Joe? It only takes a flicker of doubt for the hate energy to dissipate.

“Jungle-washing” isn’t the whole story, though: any politician appearing on anything morphs into a character who is harder to categorise, harder to despise. Ann Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing was a complicated spectacle, this miniature authoritarian, losing all authority as she galumphed about. Plainly, she was ridiculous, yet when the ridicule tipped anywhere near cruelty, a natural audience sympathy would kick in, to protect not Widdecombe herself, but the viewer’s own self-image: nobody wants to think of themselves as a bully. The more bullyable a politician makes themselves, the more we decline the offer, accessing instead a kinder, more forgiving side. So Widdecombe went into Strictly as an eccentrically cruel figure – anti-abortion, pro-death penalty – and came out as a silly aunt. Her views had not changed.

The most damaging TV rehabilitation was, of course, that of Boris Johnson on Have I Got News For You – just unending chummery stretching over years, his place in public life defined not by his political stance (which was never a fixed point) nor by his administrative competence (which was never even in play) but by this gurning, clubbable exterior. He was the man who could laugh at himself, as he laughed at everything. And let’s be real: aren’t people like that nicer to deal with? Wouldn’t it be better if all politicians could just laugh their way to power? Well, not really, it turned out. It’s better to be governed by people who care about others and take the responsibilities conferred by their jobs quite seriously. It’s immensely depressing, now, to watch the rest of the panellists go after Johnson in their giddy, chortling way: there was no slate so dirty it couldn’t be wiped clean by banter. This show was like an Etch-a-Sketch for his reputation.

Funny-guy turns on prime time TV should be seen as a conflict of interest, and declared in some kind of register. Then at least we could compare and contrast the charming, inconsequential screen persona with the person in real life whose decisions are deeply consequential and often not charming in any way. Failing that – and I think it would fail, since it is hard to think two conflicting things about someone at the same time – just keep these guys off the telly. Or restrict them to Question Time, which has never left anyone with a warm feeling about anything.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist


Zoe Williams

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