Since the early 1990s, Donal MacIntyre has been exposing the criminal underworld through hard-hitting investigative TV journalism, often endangering his own life in order to get the scoop. He’s now a visiting lecturer in criminology at Birmingham City University. We catch up with him on campus to discuss his life’s work and how academics are using his unique experience to understand the harsher side of life
”I love Birmingham and always have. People have issues with the accent – not me. I am one of those peculiar people who think it is a tremendously attractive accent,” says Donal MacIntrye, employing some of the native charm to open our conversation. We meet for a coffee at Birmingham’s Perry Barr campus, he’s relaxed and open, full of stories and anecdotes.
“There’s a very relaxed vibe to it,” he continues. “Birmingham feels a bit like going up to Ireland. People are very accommodating, they aren’t looking for an edge, which is very reassuring, particularly for outsiders.” It’s nice to know he likes Brummies. But then, for a man who spent a year with hardened gangsters in Nottingham, football hooligans such as the infamous Chelsea ‘headhunters’, and has reported from several war zones, we are a comparably nice bunch.
MacIntyre started out as a journalist as a teenager in Ireland, covering hurling matches for the Irish News. “My brother used to cover the sports beats in Ireland. The Irish News called and wanted to speak to Dara, who had just gone off to the States to work. I was about 14 or 15 at the time and I said ‘I’ll do it’. At first they said ‘you can’t do it’, but then they called back and gave me the job. So off I went off to cover Armagh versus Kildare Hurling, division three, or whatever it was. Later, Dara came back from the States and he had to pitch to get his old job back.” Both brothers now work in media, although Donal tried his hand at other things first. He aimed to be a canoeist and made it into the Irish Olympic team. But he never quite made the world’s top grade and, after completing a degree in economics, he moved back towards the career he had fallen into as a teenager.
He’s been successful, he says, through sheer hard work. MacIntyre is a “self-starter”, who went looking for stories in his time off, sometimes funding the excursions himself. “I think the people who do the best in journalism are usually the ones who work harder than anyone else. Some are just incredibly talented – that’s not me! But I definitely work harder than most. When I was working for the BBC doing sport investigations, I would leave the office at 8pm, go to Glasgow and be there for an Irish story. I went to Beirut on my credit card, just to generate stories. For some people it’s a job but for others it’s a lifestyle, and for me it’s always been the latter.”
MacIntyre’s career really started to take off during the early 1990s, when he pioneered the use of concealed cameras to capture the seedy underworlds of sport, fashion, care homes and organised crime on film. He joined the BBC, carrying out sports investigations for On-The-Line, and going undercover as a canoeing instructor to expose the lack of safety standards in the industry, a story which followed the death of four children in Lyme Regis. But MacIntyre really came to the nation’s attention when he went undercover as a night club bouncer for 11 months for the ITV programme World In Action. Here, MacIntyre exposed links between private security firms and drug dealers, coming up against hardened criminals. This type of work continued with his own BBC show MacIntyre Undercover, where he would embark on investigations that would last for over a year. “We were starting out on a route which British journalism hadn’t been down. Undercover stings lasting a day or even a week had been done, but we were going longer than that and succeeded in exposing some very dangerous characters.”
MacIntyre is now a well-known face and so undercover work is no longer possible. But he remains fascinated with the criminal world and continues to report about it. “People ask me why I am drawn to violent characters, as if it’s some kind of genetic flaw. I always say: ‘have you seen the TV schedules?’ I think there is a general obsession with violence and dysfunctional people. Essentially, damaged people are interesting.” Rather than simply exposing criminals, MacIntyre now aims to examine their lives. One of his early expose’ was of the gangster Wayne Hardy, who he helped put in prison.
A decade later, however, he met up with him again, this time digging deeper into his subject’s psyche to better understand how he had become a criminal. It was an exploration which showed the human side of a dangerous and frightening individual. “I’d exposed him as a gangster and criminal, but 10 years later I befriended him and showed him as a father and husband, too. He had undergone much tragedy in his life. His wife had killed their daughter and then herself, for instance. Just saying ‘he’s bad’ doesn’t cut it with me anymore.” Similar work continued with the Noonan’s, a Manchester ganglord who MacIntyre showed as both criminal and victim, and all else in between. “We started to make access films. It wasn’t just about exposing their crimes in terms of black and white, good and bad, but showing their whole lives with all the many shades of grey.”
MacIntyre is now working with students and academics at Birmingham City University (BCU) to develop the discipline of criminology. His unique experience adds first-hand data to the text books and theories of academia.”We are applying criminological theories to the work that I do. From journalism and right and wrong to the broader picture to criminology, and a broader and more complex understanding.” One of MacIntyre’s lessons for his students is to let go of fear. “A lot of film makers are afraid of their subjects. You have to respect them, but if you do that then you will compromise the quality of your work.”
HOW TO SURVIVE UNDERCOVER
Donal MacIntyre has posed undercover many times. But how does he manage to survive among criminals, pretending to be someone else, without going mad? “I have never found it a problem working undercover, I think others have, but I came to it quite late, having already worked as a reporter before. I had been to war zones such as Beirut, Burma and the former Yugoslavia, to name a few. So I came to it as an experienced reporter. I am comfortable in these situations. I am not the best but I am better than most. The more comfortable you are the better the results you get. “You don’t jump into the undercover world looking for problems, you have to know there’s a prima facie case beforehand. You also know what’s right and wrong, and have a team working with you, so it’s not some testosterone-filled adrenaline kick. “There’s always a smart way around something. I lived in crack house for two months and they thought I was an alcoholic as I was always drenched in Special Brew in the morning. I’d say something like ‘I won’t do drugs ‘cos my sister died of them’. “I think being Irish gives you dexterity undercover. You can be working class, international, I can be a football hooligan or a care worker or a millionaire. It’s a classless accent.”