How Reality TV Became The Ultimate Redemption Bid For Cheating Men

Matt Hancock and Seann Walsh want viewers to see their authentic selves. Some say we already have.
Matt Hancock and Seann Walsh on I'm A Celeb...
Matt Hancock and Seann Walsh on I'm A Celeb...

Your marriage is over, your career is on the brink, and public opinion has hit an unfathomable low. So, what’s the best way to recover from a very public affair?

Sign up to a stint on a reality TV show, of course.

This year’s I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! has seen both Matt Hancock and Seann Walsh enter the jungle – two men who suffered a very public fall from grace thanks to their infidelity.

Walsh was photographed snogging Strictly Come Dancing partner Katya Jones in 2018 while he was in a relationship with actor Rebecca Humphries (and Jones was married to fellow Strictly pro Neil Jones). Meanwhile the former health secretary was caught on camera in a clinch with colleague Gina Coladangelo, during lockdown. It ultimately led to the MP’s cabinet resignation.

Both men have expressed a desire to move on from the scandals on I’m A Celeb... with Hancock saying “it’s no excuse, but I fell in love,” while a tearful Walsh commented: “I’m very sorry about what happened... I want to come out of here and move forward.”

And yet, there’ve both entered a format where old wounds were bound to be picked at. Why?

It’s no coincidence the two find themselves in the jungle, in what was almost certainly seen as a mutually beneficial booking by TV execs.

“We’re very curious to see who are these people who are doing this ‘bad thing’.”

- Lucy Beresford

Those casting reality TV shows want a magical mix of “heroes” and “villains” to create intrigue and engagement. People who’ve had public affairs make ideal candidates, according to psychotherapist Lucy Beresford, because “people are very curious about infidelity”.

“We have very strong moral codes in society about fidelity and adultery and betrayal and in many religious faiths, there is a very key component which is not to betray and not to be unfaithful,” explains Beresford, a TEDx speaker with Infidelity: To Stay Or To Go.

“We’re very curious to see who are these people who are doing this ‘bad thing’, that isn’t really a crime, but it’s also something very emotional and can cause a lot of pain.”

Beresford believes the public pay close attention to high profile affairs because for many people, there’s a sense of “this could be me” – we either identify as someone who might be cheated on, or as someone who might do the cheating.

“It feels like a moral code that is easier to break than some other moral codes, for example, like ‘thou shalt not murder’, so we’re very intrigued to see what will happy next,” she explains.

It’s not unusual for those who’ve had affairs to seek atonement from wider society, so it’s no surprise to see the likes of Hancock and Walsh sign up for ‘I’m A Celeb…’

“It’s very much about seeking understanding from the outside that you’re not a bad person and you were trying to do your best and perhaps you failed,” says Beresford.

But let’s not pretend this is all about making amends. For many, it’s also an opportunity to shift public opinion.

Reality TV “provides an opportunity to wash over previous representations and actions by providing screentime to ‘remake’ their public persona – one which will have undoubtedly been rehearsed and polished by PR teams,” says Victoria Cann, associate professor in humanities at the University of East Anglia.

The reality TV rebrand isn’t reserved for those who’ve had affairs, but anyone seeking to shift the narrative associated with their name.

Ed Balls probably did this best on Strictly, which drew attention away from his political career, but that format was less intrusive and he could just cavort about with much interrogation of his personal character,” says Helen Wood, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Lancaster. “Whilst George Galloway got this really wrong on Big Brother playing a pussy cat and licking milk from Rula Lenska’s hand.”

Appearing in a show like I’m A Celeb… presents “opportunities and pitfalls,” she adds, so Walsh and Hancock should tread carefully.

“On the one hand Hancock’s hope will be that we remember a more ‘likeable’ affable face instead of that memorable CCTV image of him groping his political aid. That may work,” she says.

“But on the other hand, tired and in a group of people with alternative opinions and lifestyles, he has to be careful not do or say something cringe-worthy or further intimidating. The audience will take delight in waiting for that too.

As for Seann, honestly I’d rather see his ex-girlfriend who seems way more interesting – his attempt may well get overshadowed by Hancock’s entrance.”

But Cann points out this redemption tactic can be successful if carefully coordinated, pointing to Love Island’s Adam Collard as an example.

“His behaviour on the show in 2018 was so concerning that Women’s Aid intervened, but on returning to the show in 2022 he was able to finish in 5th place,” she says.

“But we also need to consider the role that race plays in understanding which men get to remake themselves and who will be frozen in the time of their transgression. Sherif Lanre [who was removed from Love Island in 2019] has not enjoyed such opportunities to rebrand.”

It’s worth reiterating that Hancock’s “transgression” was about far more than an affair. It occurred at a time when he was responsible for a public health policy that banned members of the public from saying goodbye to dying relatives in care homes and hospitals.

On the show, he told fellow contestant Charlene White that he wants the public to see a side of him outside of politics: “If I can use this to sort of peel myself back a bit and just be me, it’s better.”

But as Prof Wood points out, it’s worth remembering that reality TV is not always as ‘real’ as it may seem.

“My worry is that the audience might think we’re getting the ‘authentic’ Hancock here,” she says. “And if I’m honest, I think we’ve already seen that.”