Tech Lives: Donal MacIntyre

We talk to foot-in-door danger man about life and tech

In a new, regular series, T3 interviews the stars about their lives, their tech and whatever it is they happen to be plugging and are hence available to chat...

Having done Vic Reeves, in a discussion that was described by one Twitter Jockey as “the most inane interview ever”, we now move on to foot-in-door danger man Donal MacIntyre.

His new film, Hooligan, is the the hardest-hitting football violence film ever. Narrated by Sean Bean, it's been hailed as a masterpiece by both the Sunday Sport and Paul Ross.

T3: What are you plugging? A doc about football hooliganism, yes? Tell me all about it.

Donal MacIntyre: The film is basically the final chapter in my very turbulent relationship with the world of football hooliganism. It started about 10, 11 years ago and I went undercover for about 18 months with the Chelsea Headhunters and as a result of that I had to move house and bodyguards. All the fun stuff. My wife was badly beaten up and I was beaten up and there were prosecutions. So basically I decided, as I'd done with other undercover targets, I decided let's see if I can end this football fatwa, and see if I could do a more considered documentary reflecting on how the hooligans are made, how they operate, their kind of honour code, and to put it in the national, English, context and also an international context, from Germany to Argentina

T3: I think I can see the logic in that. Did it cross your mind that maybe not making another film about football hooliganism might be the way to go?

DM: Well it did, and bearing in mind I'm an expert in living my life in the very unusual gun scope of football hooliganism, while I steadfastly avoided it for ten years, it didn't abate or stop the attacks at all. For some reason it tapped into this zeitgeist and became the focus of hooligan resentment. Ok, an intelligent perspective is that you don't analyse the same subject the same way, I would hope, ten years on. So I haven't. And always with the subjects I've done, whether it's care home investigations or whether it's returning to underworld characters, I keep scratching the same itch because you become an expert in an area, so the more you cover and the more you reflect on it, the more intelligent analysis you can engender

T3: Do you enjoy danger? Does it go into the realm that you don't feel you're doing your job unless you're putting your body in the line?

DM: I see where you're going. With these Hollywood clichés of an adrenaline junkie. No I've always had one foot on the brake and one foot on the accelerator. I don't quake at the thought of a gangster threatening me or warning me or even attacking me. I tend to recede into a very cool place. Unless I'm taken by surprise. But no, I don't tend to engage with fear in the way a lot of people do. On the other hand, I'm not comfortable in the dark and I don't like mice. I'm not an adrenaline junkie at all. In all the things I've done, whether I was a canoeist, or whether I'm a filmmaker or director or reporter, you just try and do the best you can do. And it's not that hard to be the best in what I do because it's not a very crowded field. There's not too many people seeking out these people on the edge, and it's on the edge that there are these interesting people – these criminals, gangsters, football hooligans. They're interesting people. People always say to me, “DM, why are you so obsessed with crime?” and I say “Have you seen the f**king TV schedules!?” It's now an area of expertise for me – I'm a journalist, broadcaster and director, but now I'm also a lecture in criminology and forensic psychology at Birmingham City University. It's part of an expertise where you engage and try to understand, and that's what I continue to do.

T3: With this film, is it international? Do you cover the English game at all?

DM: Yeah, yeah. It's voiced over by Sean Bean and it's a personal narrative and the scriptwriter has written it in a very colloquial narrative that's engaging. So it's engaging for the football supporter, it's a very good sky one audience with lots of international references and externations and understandings and analysis of why. What was the most intriguing analysis for me is that there seems to be a parallel between some of the most beautiful football played on the pitch and some of the most dangerous violence in the stands. Argentina and Italy for me represent a very good example of that.

T3: Considering the bad outcome the last film had, why are you confident that making another film about the same subject won't have the same effect this time?

DM: Because it's about analysis and understanding and insight rather than condemnation and conviction and exposure. I've been down this road before. Before I did my first major in the cover investigations with a major drug dealer in Nottingham called Wayne Hardy, and this was a guy who was a very serious player and at his height was earning nearly £350,000 a month in cash from profits from drugs, so any comparison between him and the football hooligans are way out of sync; clearly he's a very dangerous character. I went undercover for him for World in Action in my first exposé, 12 months undercover. This is a single voyage by a journalist, foolhardy, maybe reckless, but we didn't know how reckless it was. We gave evidence, and eventually he went to jail.

Ten years afterwards I tracked down the same guy and it took three years of negotiation and I engaged with him and I said “Ok last time I exposed you, and now I want to reveal your world. Now I want to give you a chance to have the right of reply.” And by doing that, in the first programme I revealed him as a drug dealer. Ten years later I revealed him as a man who was a good brother, a very good dad, who brought up a learning disabled son who had a very serious life threatening illness, who also saw his first partner commit suicide and kill their 10 month old baby girl called Sunny. He saw his brother killed in a road accident in front of him, and his daughter was a heroin addict and a prostitute. A guy who had many, many tragedies and so his human qualities weren't just defined by his criminal record.

So it's kind of a journey from a current affairs reporter, although I still do current affairs, Newsnight reports here and there, but basically to from being a current affairs reporter to doing documentaries. In current affairs, you're making an argument, you're making a case, or exposing, gathering evidence and revealing the evidence. In documentary you're doing all of that but you're building layers and seeing context and you're explaining and understanding analysis, and in the end you have to look at a world differently ten years on, and with the Wayne Hardy documentary called The Best of Enemies I felt I really achieved that and it was like therapy for me in many ways, going down this road.

Revisiting the world of football hooliganism maybe is a cheap sort of therapy. Wayne Hardy represents genuinely a much greater serious threat to me than Jason Marriner or the Chelsea Headhunters. I've been beaten up and threatened and my wife was beaten up but somebody from the underworld could easily have put a £50,000 death threat on my head after my Nottingham exposé. So basically this isn't a foolhardy response, it isn't a thoughtless, desperate attempt to get an adrenaline rush or high. We worked with a collaborative team – we had a co director, co-producers who are going out and filming all around the world and gathering research interviews, and allowing me as the architect to pull them together, get Sean Bean on board, a writer on board, and to present a very good and watchable insight into the hooligan world in 2012.

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.

T3: How old are you?

DM: 46

T3: So you'd be one of the first generations of journalists who have always worked with computers

DM: Well no, interestingly enough, I worked in a paper in Ireland called the Irish Press, and when I joined everyone was working with typewriters. They should have been working with computers but the union were on a work to rule, and there was a building down the road with brand new computers, but the union were demanding £30,000 effectively to be trained on the computers. As a result we were still doing carbon paper and typing, and I felt very privileged to be part of that culture. At the same time I remember being in Beirut and filing a story in 1990 or 91 with Telex – that's only one step up from Morse code! Again I look back on that very fondly because you're in a war zone in Beirut.

T3: I'd have thought they would have had faxes?

DM: Well they would have had faxes but the faxes were unreliable then. Back in the mad union days you had to get permission from your editor to use the photocopier, so I've followed technology all the way to right now, I've got an iPhone and a Blackberry.

T3: A lot of people would romanticise the days of literally wiring your copy and that sort of thing. Do you ever think it will be good to go back to those days?

DM: Well it would never be good, but I'm proud to have been part of it. It was always funny to ring up the copy girl. I remember in 1990, as a young reporter, outside Mountjoy jail in Dublin. What you did is you wrote your copy and then you phoned it through to the copy girl, but one of the great things was that sometimes you'd be there and you wouldn't have time to write your copy, so you'd have to ad lib it and you'd have to construct it on the location so you'd be constructing these phrases.

Some years after that I was in New York, I saw a journalist from Channel 9 and he was doing a report outside Leonard Bernstein square, and Mayor Dinkins was there at the time and this guy was filming. It was the first time I'd seen one of these video reporters reporting and filming himself – and then undoubtedly going back and editing. And I'm thinking, “Bloody hell, I can't believe that.” It took 15 years for that to come into British news journalism.

Now, with many of my documentaries, I go out and shoot a lot of it. I occasionally, for some newspaper reports, occasionally for foreign reports, I film myself doing PTCs and things like that. But back then I was thinking, “Are you kidding me?! I can't believe they're doing that!” You know, sinking into the low arts where everyone is an expert of nothing, and we're all doing it now… we're all multi-skilled. My view of the multi-skilled world is this: a good pro cameraman is great, but I'll always pick the enthusiastic, amateur cameraman over a lazy professional any day.

T3: What's the coolest bit of technology you've bought or used recently

DM: I think it's called a Vtec tripod. It's a remote control for my iPhone so I can do pieces to camera from my iPhone's camera remotely. I can just put my iPhone up there and from a distance I can remotely turn it on and record either film or footage, take photographs or record sound or pictures. It comes with a tripod stand for the phone, and then you've got this little remote control, and you can stand away and remotely turn on your photographs or film yourself, and it's very good for speaking to camera, for example. Or if you're doing a video blog or whatever.

Obviously through the years I've lived with technology in my pillow case, on my body, from covert cameras. I've gone from having the battery that fuels the camera being in your t-shirt, actually leaking battery acid occasionally at the most inopportune moments. Now, of course, with secret cameras, the quality as good as something you used to have in your suitcase,. Now you can have it in your hand with a 16-megabyte pen or whatever.

T3: What's your favourite gadget ever?
DM: It will always be the radio. It doesn't matter whatever technological variations of it, the digital radio in my mind has opened up has opened up the whole world for me. Because I was born and bred on BBC World Service and when we were in the States on National Public Radio, and now I can hear them around the world with great clarity. It's always been a comfort blanket for me. When I grew up in Ireland and listened to it, there was a radio on the landing, crackling on 198 long wave, and everyone in the house, their ears became highly attuned to the fishing forecast through the crackles. And I guarantee you the crackles, a top army decipherer wouldn't have been able to decipher it. But our ears were so attuned to the crackles, we could work it out. The Enigma Machine couldn't have cracked it but we did. So the BBC World Service has been a kind of soundtrack to my life, and it remains so, twinned with the very engaging and kind of curious NPR national radio in the States.

T3: What's the best ever game console?

DM: Well I'm not too sure about that because I've steadfastly avoided games because I knew I'd become obsessed and therefore all my spare time would go. But I find it a very interesting area because of the debate on proprietory ownership.

T3: You mean the way you have to register yourself to use it?

DM: Well the fact that initially when the Sony PlayStation came out you were given the freedom to go in, you were encouraged to re-engineer it, and then of course Sony changed the parameters and said if you re-engineer it, you're breaking the laws and prosecutable. So it represents two different schools of the big corporations. Do we give and release our technology, allow others to some extent to harness it, take it, develop it, play with it? Or do we say “No, in the small print you have signed everything away, and by the way we have access to all your material, private material, your emails and files.” So it's a very interesting debate. I am a libertarian that believes if you buy a car, you buy a car. You should be able to tinker with it as you will, and develop and enhance it. It's the difference between Android and the iPhone. The Android has taken the libertarian side, while the iPhone is still very proprietorial. I think that's where Apple may come into trouble with its market share.

T3: Sony would argue that they try and prevent re-engineering the PlayStation because people would use that as a means to pirate games…

DM: Well it's a different argument. If I'm buying a car and then I'm taking the car parts and I'm using that to reengineer to sell dodgy car parts or dodgy airplane parts, it's different. There are already laws against that. But I think for a big corporation to do this, it's very heavy handed. I think they have suffered badly at the hands of Anonymous because of this. They were one of the reasons for the expansion of Anonymous. Though I recognise their corporate pressure. When I do my movies, it costs me money when people pirate it, so I'm in the same territory. But I do raise an eyebrow when Google are doing their Google Streetview and have all our information. So I take a protected view on people and liberty. At the same time, I take a cautious view of those 120-page online legal agreements that then say “Tick this box here”. And I have to say hang on this second, there's a legal problem there. You have a 12-year-old buying it, and signing legal agreements that have no bearing, then being prosecuted when they try to reengineer it.

Duncan Bell

Duncan is the former lifestyle editor of T3 and has been writing about tech for almost 15 years. He has covered everything from smartphones to headphones, TV to AC and air fryers to the movies of James Bond and obscure anime. His current brief is everything to do with the home and kitchen, which is good because he is an excellent cook, if he says so himself. He also covers cycling and ebikes – like over-using italics, this is another passion of his. In his long and varied lifestyle-tech career he is one of the few people to have been a fitness editor despite being unfit and a cars editor for not one but two websites, despite being unable to drive. He also has about 400 vacuum cleaners, and is possibly the UK's leading expert on cordless vacuum cleaners, despite being decidedly messy. A cricket fan for over 30 years, he also recently become T3's cricket editor, writing about how to stream obscure T20 tournaments, and turning out some typically no-nonsense opinions on the world's top teams and players.

Before T3, Duncan was a music and film reviewer, worked for a magazine about gambling that employed a surprisingly large number of convicted criminals, and then a magazine called Bizarre that was essentially like a cross between Reddit and DeviantArt, before the invention of the internet. There was also a lengthy period where he essentially wrote all of T3 magazine every month for about 3 years. 

A broadcaster, raconteur and public speaker, Duncan used to be on telly loads, but an unfortunate incident put a stop to that, so he now largely contents himself with telling people, "I used to be on the TV, you know."