Gill Jamieson is a Senior Lecturer in Film, Television and Cultural Studies at the University of the West of Scotland

IN the desperate battle to win the Autumn ratings war, ITV have sacrificed something of their integrity in casting the former health minister Matt Hancock in their flagship reality show I’m A Celebrity. Much admired for their robust coverage during the pandemic, the network now seems willing to risk trivialising the feelings of those affected by Covid-19 in an effort to revitalise a beleaguered entertainment format.

We should feel sorry for the celebrities unwittingly drawn into this ruthless game. It seems like they have been recruited to a social experiment, acting as a barometer of the public mood. Their collective jaws dropped when Hancock entered camp and they have been trying to navigate the right path ever since. Nobody, possibly with the exception of Boy George, wants to make a wrong move.

ITV have a duty of care to all of the participants. They cast Hancock expecting drama – assuming he’d be the villain, but he’s a wily and adaptable player and he has emerged with some lustre as a result of his strong performance in the bushtucker trials and for his unruffled demeanour around camp. Subsequently, he has grown in popularity while the other celebrities are vilified if they voice any criticism of Hancock. The vitriol directed at some of the other campers has been shocking to read. Many on social media are quick to accuse the celebrities of bullying; but the truth is that Hancock has hardly been used as a human dartboard, he’s been getting a fairly easy ride, even when being questioned by campmates. Loose Women’s Charlene White’s attempts at quizzing him even ended in a conciliatory hug.

A disgruntled Boy George complained on Saturday night that no one is really being themselves or letting their guard down. He’s right: reality TV is a misnomer – in reality the footage is heavily edited and many of the participants have a preparedness for the performative nature of the show. I’m A Celebrity has been running for 20 years – participants are well-versed in the nature of the experience by virtue of the its visibility on British television over a very long period of time.

Harold Wilson famously said a week is a long time in politics. It’s also a long time in the jungle and the fickle world of reality television. I’m a Celebrity is fundamentally a popularity contest and the public are voting to keep their favourites in camp. It may surprise many that Hancock has fans especially as his conduct has been less than exemplary. He jetted off to the jungle a few days before The UK Covid-19 inquiry opened its third investigation into core decision making and leadership of healthcare during the pandemic. He has also come in for a huge amount of criticism for his decision to leave his constituents without representation – losing the whip as a result. As an MP he is trained in handling the media – ‘pivoting’ away from difficult questions as he explained to Scarlette Douglas in the first few days in camp; and his careful approach to answering difficult questions has illustrated this.

In sending Hancock into the jungle, ITV have taken a major gamble with a programme that was essentially conceived as harmless fun back in 2002 – something to lighten the dark winter nights in the run up to Christmas. Presenters Ant and Dec often emphasise the silliness or cringe-worthy nature of any given exchange in camp. Footage of Hancock doing the electric slide or botching the lyrics to Sweet Caroline play well to that theme.

However, they don’t seem to have anticipated that Hancock could emerge as a genuinely popular figure and that some of the other celebrities would be demonised. Those celebrities signed up for a light entertainment show with a view to enhancing their long-term career prospects – they don’t expect to come out of the jungle as figures of hate. ITV may be buoyed by the ratings, but they should also expect significant criticism of the brand if any of the participating celebrities experience a backlash on their return.