Voices: I’m the MP for the ‘Tower Block of Commons’ – and I have a message for Nadine Dorries

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I reminded Dorries of her reality TV past last week when I found myself in front of her before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee (Aaron Chown/PA)
I reminded Dorries of her reality TV past last week when I found myself in front of her before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee (Aaron Chown/PA)

Good old reality TV. This genre, though much younger than, say, the sitcom, quiz show or soap opera, combines elements of all three and has provided some of the most memorable small-screen moments of recent history.

It has also had its brushes with my trade (politics) a few times. Arguably, Donald Trump, a former reality TV star of The Apprentice in the US, being elected president of the free world was the high point of this relationship. As the old phrase goes, politics is simply showbiz for ugly people.

Here in Britain, we’re no stranger to seeing politicians on TV, either. We all remember George Galloway doing a cat impersonation on Big Brother – while Tory MP Michael Fabricant starred on First Dates . And that’s before we get into I’m a Celebrity competitors, former Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik and Nadine Dorries, now culture secretary.

I reminded Dorries of another episode of her reality TV past last week when I found myself in front of her before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in parliament.

I started off by praising her earlier work – namely her appearance on Tower Block of Commons in 2010, filmed on the South Acton estate in my (now) constituency – telling her how much I’d enjoyed it at the time.

The premise of the show was that MPs “leave behind the splendour of Westminster and their comfortable homes for eight days and nights to live in council tower block estates in some of Britain’s most deprived neighbourhoods”. In short, a life swap where privileged MPs learn how the other half live. The same scenario applied to a show in 2018 on Channel 5, where ex-politician Michael Portillo was seen driving around a battered Renault car.

These offerings have been much critiqued as uncomfortable viewing. The term “poverty porn” emerged to refer to programmes like MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and the now defunct Jeremy Kyle Show. Worse examples include the likes of 2014’s Benefits Street, which was particularly controversial at the time as participants claimed that they were “tricked” into appearing on the show and programme makers were accused of revelling in tales of people dossing around and engaging in criminal activity.

Tower Block of Commons was a whole four years earlier though – aeons ago in telly time, when we had a Labour government, pre-post-truth politics, which felt like an innocent age before reality TV (and all forms of broadcasting) had cranked up the confrontainment factor to the max. So, it surprised me when the culture secretary shot back that the show had used actors.

For something that looked like it was a blurted-out afterthought, this claim has arrived at a bad time for Channel 4. The future of the channel can’t even claim to be in the balance, given we were told that this Thatcher creation would be privatised and that the BBC licence fee could not exist as it is. Committee member and Tory grandee Damian Green branded the consultations “a sham”.

Channel 4 have since asked Dorries for evidence to back up her claim that the reality TV show was faked (EPA)
Channel 4 have since asked Dorries for evidence to back up her claim that the reality TV show was faked (EPA)

It’s understandably upset the company, Love Productions, who made Tower Block of Commons, to have their integrity attacked. “Loose lips sink ships” as the saying goes, and it would be disastrous if an erroneous claim helped take down Channel 4 – who have said that they are launching an investigation into the incident, as are the production company. Several other current and former MPs took part in the programme, including Mark Oaten, Austin Mitchell and Tim Loughton. Did they also find such fakery? I think we should be told.

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I’m reminded of the opening lines of “Reader Meet Author” – a Morrissey song from before he went totally bonkers and arguably racist too: “You don’t know a thing about their lives/ They live where you wouldn’t dare to drive,” which me, being a PhD student at the time, saw as a cautionary tale on participant observation.

Life in South Acton is tough for many and concerningly, I’ve had two separate emails from past constituents (now moved on) claiming that their group of pals who participated in the show were 100 per cent genuine, including “the boys” Dorries referred to in our committee as being “drama school students”.

The quasi, academically-framed role reversal scenario can illuminate rather than simply titillate. The only vague controversy up until now had been Dorries smuggling a £50 note into the flat in contravention to the rules and slipping it to a single mum to get something for the kids, which made her look like a big-hearted softie. These days, she’s proving hard as nails on Channel 4.

Perhaps Dorries, also a best-selling author, was mixing up the show with others? But at this sensitive time, if a slip was made, it needs correcting. We wouldn’t want the Channel 4 we know and love disappearing down the plughole with it.

Dr Rupa Huq is the Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton