Donal MacIntyre: In From The Cold

Donal MacIntyre, whose series of undercover television investigations has exposed organised football hooliganism and the abuse of teenage models, spent 18 months inhabiting four different worlds - none of them his own. Susan Chenery met him in mid-transition from twilight to limelight
Click to follow
THE FLOOR of Donal MacIntyre's car crunches as you get in. At a glance there would appear to be an archaeological site down there. Layers of encrusted artefacts: the enterprising journalist could probably dispense with the interview altogether and simply take to the car with a spade. Ancient paper coffee cups, a Dick Francis novel and dead soft drink cans heave to life as the car is jerked to a start and shudders uncertainly down the road.

MacIntyre, 33, is not an accomplished driver: even he is scared of driving with himself. "I hate driving, I am a nervous driver. I want airbags in my car. People would naturally think I am a Ferrari or Alfa Romeo sort of person but I drive a Volvo, right. At the end of the day I know I am far more likely to be killed in a car accident with a mobile phone in my hand and a cup of coffee rolling on the dashboard than I am in a war zone, or undercover."

This is Donal MacIntyre's moment. A few weeks ago, he pretty much didn't exist. It wasn't that he was not himself: it was just that he was other people, people you would be advised to avoid. You might have come across a foul-mouthed football hooligan, a quiet care-worker, a duplicitous bodyguard, a bombastic fashion photographer. At the same time, he had four different personalities, four different worlds, four separate lives, four wardrobes, four dialects. He played four dangerous psychological games; all wired with sophisticated technology, all accompanied by a loud scream as the tape was ripped from the chest.

For the past 18 months MacIntyre has been living in the twilight world of the undercover television reporter, and I have caught him at the point where he has moved from the subterfuge into the glare of celebrity. His series, MacIntyre Undercover, (the fifth and final programme, a round- up, will be shown this Tuesday) has been watched and digested by millions. It has exposed brutality in care homes, the practice among those paid to protect teenage models preying upon them sexually, organised football violence and highly sophisticated scams by Nigerian con-artists. He has moved from covert to overt so quickly that he could be forgiven for having the bends. "One week you can't tell anybody about your job - the next you are spending all day telling everybody everything."

His other lives are falling away, but MacIntyre is still wedged somewhere between all the worlds he has inhabited. He is fragmented, disjointed: a bundle of churning, exhausted, excited energy. He is still back there, still obsessed with the stories, which are still breaking by the minute. Gerald Marie, the European president of Elite Model Agency has just resigned; questions are being asked in high places about care homes; and Jason Marriner, MacIntyre's frightening former football hooligan friend, has been sacked from his job and banned from attending Chelsea matches.

Being everybody else has taken it out of him. "I am forgetting where I have put things," he says. "It reached the stage where I would be asking for my phone and somebody would have to remind me that it was in my hand." Undercover reporting can also be seriously bad for your health, MacIntyre discovered, as he made the shift from sexual predator to violent thug. He took up smoking to keep people at a distance from the technical hardware strapped to his beleaguered body; his weight ballooned from drinking lager with the football hooligans. At an insanely committed point he went so far into character as to get a tattoo of Chelsea Football club, the essential badge of the hooligan. (This, he says, was not his finest hour: he fainted.) He believes he was able to summon the stamina for subterfuge so easily because he trained to be an Olympic canoeist: years of build-up for the crucial two-minute sprint. He comes back to this again and again as a metaphor for his life: "It taught me to set long-term goals, the slow burn."

MacIntyre rarely finishes his sentences, but flits from subject to subject, as if frantically spewing everything that he has been unable to say in the past 18 months. "It was a great catharsis being able talk about it," he tells me later, over the phone. He is smaller, more shambling and less beefy than he appears in the programmes. Ben Anderson, who worked undercover alongside him in the Milan fashion circles and the care homes, says, "He is more scatty in person than you see on television. What you see usually takes five or six takes. He was living on 30 cups of coffee a day, forgetting what he was saying in mid-sentence, repeating himself over and over again. It was strange, it was chaos."

In fact, it is almost impossible to imagine MacIntyre ever shutting up long enough for his targets to reveal themselves in all their unsavoury splendour. It is also hard to credit someone so intense being so believable in all those roles. He talks so quickly and with such wild enthusiasm that his sentences race along the runway and take off into orbit. MacIntyre laughs "I am not naturally a listener. I am Irish. I am a journalist. More than once, Colin [Barr, who worked with him on the fashion story] said, 'Donal, you are talking too much.' In football, I changed my character - I had to be taciturn, cool, not talking. Really careful, measure the words, learn the phrases, change my accent slightly, study for the role. I was still a really bad football hooligan.

"But Gerald Marie doesn't listen to anybody, he conducts and runs the conversations. The moment he really became comfortable with me was when I told him I was the heir to a great fortune. I told some ludicrous lies. I told him I didn't make a meeting at three in the morning because I had to do a photo-shoot with Chelsea Clinton in the US. Next thing he's telling everybody that I am a great portrait photographer. With the Nigerian fraudsters I had a business suit, I have an economics degree, I used to be a financial journalist, so I can talk the talk."

It is easy to see how he is able to infiltrate and befriend. He is Irish, charming, friendly, optimistic, exhausting; a penetrative personality, so to speak. You can see it working in the programmes: the way he immediately identifies with his companion, finds common ground, is genuinely interested. "He is very industrious," says an insider. "You have to have a sneaking admiration for him. He once said to Roger Cook, 'I'm going to be the man who takes your job.'"

There seems to have been some dissension at the lack of credit given by the BBC to those who worked as long, riskily and hard in the field as MacIntyre. "I worked in the care home on 14-hour shifts for four or five weeks," says Ben Anderson. "At least half the stuff was my stuff. He was not often on his own. Donal was the only one doing three things in one day, but there were three or four other guys filming who took the same risks at times. It was incredibly difficult. The batteries and tapes only last about an hour and 40 minutes, so you have to keep on changing them. You sometimes have to do it almost in public view, or flush the toilet as you rip off the Velcro. At the same time you have to be dumbing down and acting impressionable."

It is MacIntyre, though, who will pay the price. He has blown his cover, and there is no going back: the programmes have been a kamikaze mission. There are death threats. He lives in hiding, in a safe house, forced to sell his own home because it was too close to Chelsea football ground, where he investigated the hooligans. "After I sold it, I had a cheque for pounds 43,000 in my wallet for three months because I didn't have time to go to the bank." There is no personal life. "There couldn't be. You couldn't involve yourself wholeheartedly or fully in a relationship."

He could not tell his family what he was doing, could not go home for Christmas, could not be there for important events. "I couldn't allow anyone else to be complicit in my work." One of five children, he is close to his family. "I am a twin, but not identical - which is unfortunate, because that could have been useful. My parents split up when I was young, which was highly unusual in Ireland. We were the only broken family at my school. We used to joke that we were the dysfunctionals. But we were happily so, in the sense that we were different. My mum bought us up on her own. She did three jobs to finance us, she is an extraordinary woman. She has energy and drive and I absolutely get it from her, she is unbelievable." "Unbelievable" is a word he uses frequently. "Un-be-lieeev-able," he chirrups frequently into his mobile phone.

Journalism appears to have been a family trade, handed down to him by his older brother. "When I was in secondary school, a top journalist in Ireland used to cover all the local football matches. When he went on he passed his beat on to my brother. When my brother went off to work for the New York Daily News, the papers would ring up looking for him and I would say, 'He's not here.' They would say, 'You do it, OK?' All the Presidents' Men is the reason I got into journalism - that and Ed Asner." He became a news reporter in Ireland; then, in London, an investigative sports journalist. He transferred to World In Action in 1995, winning a Royal Television Society award for a documentary on drug-dealing in Nottingham clubs, which required him to go undercover as a bouncer for more than a year.

Watching the programmes, the way in which MacIntyre and his crew must have targeted and stalked their subjects seems chillingly predatory and invasive. They move into other people's lives, loaded down with cameras. Or, as MacIntyre writes in his recently published diary of the series, "cajoling, anticipating, caressing and tickling the belly of the beast". He went so far as to move into the same building as Jason Marriner. No matter how insanely brave, morally justifiable or entertaining it is for the viewer, there is something frightening about it. But MacIntyre is ready and waiting for this criticism. "I am not interested in who is bonking who," he says, emphatically. "This is not about the postman shagging the policeman's wife. The targets must be significant. To be frank, I don't enjoy lying. I know more about the debate about privacy and those issues than anybody. Ben Bradlee, one of the most esteemed journalists in the western media, feels that for a journalist to misrepresent himself is an abomination, in all circumstances, and without any caveat whatsoever. I agree that in certain circumstances you have to be very careful with these tools. But I think people would accept that taking on Elite is not taking on the minnow. It is taking on one of the biggest modelling agencies in the world, because it is manipulating and exploiting girls as young as 14 with sex and drugs. Everybody knows it's been going on for years, and they continue to get away with it. Part of the damage and stress that is caused to these women who have left the industry is that the guy has continued to do it. We have launched police inquiries, we have moved 29 care patients to a safer place. We have exposed how hooligans organise. There will be convictions. Is it a noble art? No, it is not. Is it a nice game? No. Is it a tool of last resort? Yes, it is. I think I did it for the right reasons."

In each of the programmes there is a tremendous dramatic build-up as the viewer is taken inside the investigation. The build-up is such that the ending can be anticlimactic and thin, as the promise of the great revelation evaporates. It is the ease with which people are deceived that is so rivetting - for the viewer knows what the subject does not: that they are on candid camera. Those are real bottles whizzing past MacIntyre's head during a hooligan battle in Copenhagen. You have to wonder, though, how much of this is ego-driven Boys' Own stuff; how much real social conscience. "Look," he says insistently, waving his arms about: "The danger gives an erroneous sense that it is a testosterone ride, which it is not. It is easy to misrepresent me as an adrenalin-kick person. I am a straight paper-trail journalist."

Perhaps the great art of this kind of journalism is appearing to participate in debauchery to gain credibility with your subject while not actually doing so. MacIntyre had to give the impression of doing drugs, and of accepting gifts of prostitutes from Gerald Marie of Elite. "You cannot break the law. You can buy cocaine and get it tested, but that is as far as it goes. At one point, a prostitute in Moscow had the entire investigation in her hands. If she went back and told them I hadn't shagged her, the whole investigation would have been blown. I pleaded with her not to embarrass me - I said I had diabetes - and paid her. She went home; I only know that because the guys said nothing the next day when I told them what a fantastic time I had with her.

"But as much as Gerald was not listening to me most of the time, Jason [Marriner] remembered everything. He was listening for every word, every clue. That is why he hasn't been convicted for violence. He thinks about things very carefully. I remember I had to drive him back to London after a big conference for football hooligans. I was so tired, I lost my way and it took five hours. In that journey he was forensically quizzing me about something I had told him months earlier and forgotten. I was too tired to be driving, and here I was, having a five-hour forensic by a Chelsea hooligan. It might look like it was all done with military precision, but I can tell you it absolutely wasn't. Colin [Barr] was always afraid I would come back from football belligerent, and he was always worrying that I would leave fashion and go up and kiss Jason on both cheeks and go, 'Ciao, bello' - which would not be appropriate at all."

If this is combat journalism, there is something of the war survivor about Donal MacIntyre, returning from the front line. By now the conquering hero is so exhausted he is barely making sense. Will he miss his alter egos, just a tiny bit? "This has been a conscious effort to say that this is the end of the road for me, and I'm on to something different. I am too tired to make any decent assessment of what the future would mean. As far as I am concerned, I am not going undercover ever again. I have done my time."

Having said that, he is already preparing his next vanishing act. "I take with a wry smile the life I have now, a kind of semi-celebrity. It is still amusing. But then it will all be over, and I will disappear. People can write what they like, but I won't read it, and I won't be around to answer the phone calls. I don't care, because I am going on holiday, and nobody is going to stop me." MacIntyre pauses for a moment and reflects ruefully. "Although there are an awful lot of places off my holiday list now."

The final programme of 'MacIntyre Undercover' will be shown on BBC1 on Tuesday at 9.30pm