Nigel Farage’s appearance on I’m A Celebrity does not seem to be working out all that well for anyone apart from whichever bank finally decided to give him an account. Ratings have plummeted, the show seems even less edifying than ever and though Farage will be pleased to have soaked up attacks on Brexit from some campmates, he squirmed when confronted by influencer Nella Rose over migrants and the NHS.
The producers seem to have lived down to old-school conflict casting standards, potentially setting up campmates of colour for online backlash once they emerge. No doubt that will follow for Rose after she hit back at Farage for claiming that too much immigration was causing long waits for GP appointments.
“You’re not getting an appointment because the NHS is lacking funding,” she fumed.
“I bet you anything if every single immigrant or from immigrant descent was to leave the UK, all your doctors go. Most of your doctors are Asian right? Most of your nurses are African women, right?”
Apart from this moment of truth for Farage – who told Rose that she would be amazed at how many black people liked him – nothing useful has come from the rows we’ve seen broadcast so far. If we’re supposed to be in a new, kinder era of reality TV there is little sign of it here.
Thankfully, I’m A Celebrity… doesn’t seem to be benefitting all that much from its controversial casting decision. Each of the first three episodes of the series has been down more than two million viewers – that’s around one in four – versus the year before. That’s bad for the show and bad for ITV: the ad revenue needed to offset Farage’s £1.5 million fee won’t be coming in as quickly now ratings are lower.
Politicians are used to being confronted and debated, and tend to come out better in such clashes. So far, Farage is hardly coming across as monstrous, and he’s unlikely to let the mask slip and launch into an overtly extremist rant live on air. By virtue of being a bit older than many of the campmates, he’s likely to be a bit calmer. He seems less disliked by his campmates than did Matt Hancock this far into his camp stay.
But that superficial win is unlikely to materialise into all that much. No politician has managed to leverage a reality show appearance into a political revival – the best they have attained is something of a showbiz career, a la Ed Balls. No-one’s standing as a serious politician has been helped by carrying out reality TV stunts.
There’s always a chance for someone to be the first, but it’s also telling what Farage is missing. The Tories are close to open civil warfare over small boats and the new record net migration figures released today would surely be a rare moment of opportunity for someone of Farage’s populist politics. Instead, he’s closed off from the news on a fake campsite in Australia.
Several Conservative MPs have been openly floating the idea of Farage ‘returning’ to the party, rehabilitating him into the political mainstream (even though he’s never made it to parliament). It’s not clear how consistent that is with primetime ITV – though Farage will doubtless be comforted by the fee he’s received.
ITV’s big daring move for their ailing franchise, then, seems like a fit one for 2023. Viewers aren’t loving it, which means executives probably aren’t loving it. The ethics of it feel dubious at best and outright cynically cruel at worst. It risks rehabilitating a populist, but will probably not benefit Farage politically in any meaningful way. So, well done ITV – turns out we all lose.