Tech Lives: Donal MacIntyre
T3: So you’re painting a picture and letting people make up their mind?
DM: Well yeah, I think there’s two schools of documentary: the very polemical Michael Moore type documentary where he desperately leads you to the water and makes you drink it.
T3: That would seem to apply to your earlier films as well though. Do you feel like you’ve gone from being overly judgemental to almost being overly unjudgemental?
DM: I think you’re looking at the style of the films – one is current affairs and one is documentary. Under the current affairs banner you are gathering evidence and exposing and delivering and convicting. In documentary it’s very different. The work I’m doing now mostly it’s more similar to Louis Theroux, to Ross Kemp, and the gang work which you wont be familiar with. I did a film in 2007/2008 called Great British Gangster, which I appeared in very briefly but basically it’s a documentary film with a Manchester crime family. It was Sundance selected and went to cinemas in the UK and France and here and did very well, and I directed that and appeared briefly in it.
Basically in current affairs you are delivering evidence and I as a reporter am a conduit. In a wider documentary – and this is a 75-minute expanded cinema documentary – then basically it is, as you say, allowing the audience to take a view. Now in relation to The Great British Gangster in 2007, we again weren’t judgemental, we allowed the audience to take their view. When I do my Newsnight pieces, I don’t have to tell a Newsnight audience that what rioters did last year was wrong, for instance, but two weeks after the riots I was able to go with a Newsnight team and instead of just talking to the opinion formers, talking to the criminologists, I got access and talked to the rioters themselves and asked them specifically face to face about why they rioted. Now we know what they did was wrong, we know that it should be punished, but you’re trying to understand. There’s no point in me saying, “You’re a rioter, you’re a bad man. Fuck off and go to jail.” What I’m trying to say is, “I think you deserve what’s coming to you, but tell me what was going through your head.” At the end of the day, the analysis we got was that it was partly kind of structural, partly poverty, and they all recognised that, but they never regarded themselves as victims. In criminology it’s called “the joys of transgression.” It was just a great day out. Something to tell the grandkids about.
So I think my journey has been from black-and white current affairs, which does carry a judgemental quality because you’re saying, “This is the evidence, this is what it means and that guy should be held accountable.” In documentary you’re saying, “Well here’s the map, this is the world, make your own judgement…”
T3: It seems like the way you’re putting it there is, “I used to work in current affairs so I took a more judgemental approach. Now I happen to work in documentary and it’s like this…” But surely it’s more the case that you’ve decided to make your approach more subtle, more open…
DM: Well it depends. I still do current affairs. I still get attacked by gangsters in Ireland.
T3: Just to keep your hand in?
DM: I don’t want to be trite, but that’s what happens. My wife got beaten up when she had a brain tumour because of me. It’s very serious. I always underplay the impact of the violence it sets upon me because that’s who I am, but I can’t underplay the impact of being beaten up. However, listen, I’m a journalist. Some days you’re going to be required to write a coruscating feature or exposé on somebody, and some days you’re going to be asked to write a trite whatever. It depends on the subject. So it’s no different to me. I have a broad palette in relation to this.
It’s not like I just tackle football hooliganism. Care homes, I’ve been consistently exposing and revealing issues there with four or five documentaries over the last 10 to 15 years. I’ve been exposing, revealing, harassing, challenging and provoking in that arena. With crime I’ve been exposing and doing all that. I continue to expose and harass and challenge and provoke.
T3: You must feel a bit vindicated… It appears now there is more impetus to do something about abuse in care homes.
DM: I’ve always felt as an investigative journalist it’s one of those thing I always felt there was important work to be done in the area of care homes. My aunt was learning disabled, and I came from a village in Ireland where we had a big care home that was well run and was well respected and a full part of the community, so I understood how work could be done well. So I was very keen, and I was working with the BBC to do care homes… And there were care home exposes before mine and there were high profile exposés afterwards. The sad thing is there’s a necessity for continued exposés. It is disappointing that it remains so necessary.
T3: So do you think you can keep exposing these things but it’s never going to get better?
DM: Thanks to a couple of charities like Mencap and exposés like mine and others in the BBC and Dispatches and all of that it has got better, because catastrophe and scandal drive change. We’ve been helpful in doing that, but we want more light than fire, and the problem is, increasingly, as the government has become very powerful on the ethos of the importance of respect and integrity, the problem is as more genuine interest and concern has been raised, the money has left the arena because there’s less money around. So it’s got different pressures.
T3: Do you mean money in care homes themselves, or money in investigating?
DM: No I think it’s just money in care homes. I think the big problem is money in the caring industry. But I think it’s one of the arenas that British journalists can feel most proud of. Every year a major broadcaster will be tackling this subject. I did three programmes for channel 5. I did a programme before I was on BBC, before tackling the issue of tackling learning disability. And then I did my exposé on the BBC. But I took it a hard way, I had a very difficult time. I’d like to think significantly the big thing that I did was change the way the police investigated these issues, because when we did our programme, the police accused me of making up the footage. The police said to me, “Oh, there were only 5 assaults in one day.” And I said, “Well how many f**king assaults are there in a bad home?!” So they were threatening me with prosecution. In the end it cost them £750,000 in libel damages and court costs after they threatened to ruin my career. But I fought hard and that single battle changed the way police viewed assaults in care homes. No longer was it like one step removed from a prison. No, it’s a care home – the key word is “care”. It’s not a restraint home, it’s not a prison, it’s not a police cell. So now the police have become much more in tune with how they prosecute these cases and much more intelligent, thank goodness. So I suppose that is my contribution.
T3: I’m now going to ask you some questions about gadgets. This is going to be the weirdest-reading interview ever. What was the first gadget you ever bought?
DM: It was probably one of those very old computers, as a young journalist, an Atari computer. That was as I had aspirations as a journalist at 17 or 18.