Popular TV shows have become the domain of publicity-hungry MPs, but their justifications for taking part sell voters short, writes Tiffany Jenkins
Not once has it turned out well. Not one MP has left the Big Brother House or the jungle more popular than before they went in. Not one clarified their ideals and convictions in the process. If anything, those that have made the misjudgment to appear on our TV screens have appeared desperate and vacuous as they re-entered the real world.
Undeterred, this Saturday Conservative MP Penny Mordaunt will take part in the ITV show Splash! The programme follows celebrities as they sport a bathing suit and dive from the high board. Inevitably, there is a competitive element. Ms Mordaunt, who is MP for Portsmouth North, will compete with The Only Way Is Essex star Dan Osbourne and comedian Patrick Monahan; if you aren’t too sure who they are, then rest assured they are suitably B list. The Olympian diver Tom Daley is the celebrities’ mentor, expect a great deal of therapeutic, motivational guff.
John Ferrett, the leader of the Portsmouth City Council Labour group, criticised Ms Mordaunt for training for a celebrity game show. It was an insult, he said, when workers were trying to save 900 jobs in the city after BAE’s decision to stop shipbuilding.
Ms Mordaunt, who is a Royal Navy reservist, deflected criticism that she might be trying to shamelessly raise her profile (in 2010, she appeared in a Vanity Fair photo shoot featuring “Cameron’s Cuties”) with the self-deprecating confession that she has the “diving prowess of a paving slab”. Still, she was happy to boast: “Navy training has certainly given me the guts to take the challenge head on.”
She will receive £7,000 for her appearance. Ms Mordaunt explained taking part would be a “personal development experience” and “the perfect way to fund raise for a charity I’m very passionate about” – the Hilsea Lido, as well as four armed forces charities. Not for one second should we think that this TV appearance is in any way in her interests. Besides, she said, she can do more than one thing at a time and that training for the show has not taken from her efforts to campaign for the shipyard.
Whilst Splash! has had, shall we say, mixed reviews, it is a harmless if derivative television programme, family viewing on an early Saturday evening, sharing similar contestants and dialogue as Strictly Come Dancing or The Voice. Unlike Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!, at least Ms Mordaunt won’t be live on camera for a significant amount of time, exposing us to her every movement.
I have nothing against the programme, but there are questions to be raised about MPs’ appearances on non-political programmes, especially reality TV and talent shows. I don’t know Penny Mourdaunt. Her motives could be well-intentioned and genuine. Maybe she’ll help to save the lido and that’s a good thing – I can hardly object that she is donating her fee to charity. But anyone who thinks that it’s a good idea for MPs to do a turn on these kind of shows needs to remember the fate of fellow politicians who have done the same and ask if it doesn’t bring the role into disrepute. Or at least ask if it is not a flawed approach to engaging people in politics: one reason given for their participation.
George Galloway, when MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, took the plunge in Celebrity Big Brother. Mention his name to this day and you will see people smile – with disrespect – as they recall how he crawled on the ground and pretended to be a cat. Mr Galloway justified his participation in the show as in the interests of politics and the public. “I believe that politicians should use every opportunity to communicate with people,” he said. “I’m a great believer in the democratic process. Big Brother is watched by millions.”
Nadine Dorries was suspended from the Conservative Party in 2012 for appearing on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, as it clashed with parliamentary business. She defended her decision as “helping to bring politics to real people”, arguing that she had participated to burst the Westminster bubble, to talk directly to voters. All people really talked about was the bugs she ate and the post she vacated. Not quite the stuff to encourage us to the ballot box.
Self-interested attempts to become famous aside, appearing on such TV shows appears fuelled by the premise that it can makes politicians appear more in touch with the common man. But what those participating seem to forget is that the best way talk directly with the common man is to speak to him in real life. Not through the television screen, but in person. Not from on high and with the one way traffic of a TV broadcast, but in person in dialogue and debate, when people can respond and tell them what they think and their concerns. It’s what MPs who are less concerned with their Heat magazine profile have done for a long time through their constituency office and in public meetings.
Ms Dorres claimed viewers got “an impression of a woman from their own background who was interested in engaging with their world and was untainted by the stuffy rigidity of the Westminster bubble”. Those defending Ms Mordaunt argue that it makes MPs seem more real and as a role model (because, it would seem, diving is a healthy thing to do). But this is to get the public and their interest in politics wrong. Since when do we vote or support political parties because of these reasons?
If politicians think that prancing around pretending to be a cat, eating bugs or diving into a swimming pool is the way to engage people in politics, they need a reality check. The way to our hearts is not by trying to show they are human beings, bowing down to the contemporary obsession with personality. I don’t especially care what politicians are like as people. I am not interested making friends but in electing someone who knows the reality of the problems facing many people and has ideas about what can be done about them. That is a full-time job and one they should take more seriously. Engaging in real life, not reality TV is the way to win the political game.