■ The TV journalist, 52, on exposing the truth behind disasters, living with death threats and Dancing On Ice
Tell us about Disasters That Changed Britain. It’s hosted by James Nesbitt and you’re a co-presenter…
We break down the culpability of disasters and show how they took place. Rather than accidents being considered acts of gods, they are usually preventable. We cover Grenfell, the King’s Cross fire, the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, the Munich air crash and others. We try to show what went wrong and point the finger — it’s a hybrid of hard news, analysis and the emotional impact on those affected.
What are the most avertable disasters in the series?
All of them were avertable. The tragedy of Grenfell, along with the others, involves cost-cutting and issues of social class. With the Munich air crash, the footballers were told to come back and play their domestic game within 24 hours of their Munich game — and the pressure for them to fly back that night was a contributory factor to what happened. European football at the time didn’t have the credibility it does now and senior figures in the FA put pressure on Manchester United to fly when they shouldn’t have done. With Zeebrugge, the problems with the doors were well known [the ferry sank with the loss of 193 lives after crew failed to shut the bow doors]. How these things are investigated has changed over the years. There’s no doubt the Hillsborough disaster and the campaigning by the families has changed the way inquiries are dealt with. I think the assumption has been that if you’re a person in authority you’re guaranteed to tell the truth but if you’re a working-class person your evidence can be discounted as emotional or false. There will always be companies that take shortcuts and civil servants who swerve taking responsibility but the analyses of what happened is so crucial to preventing these things from happening again.
Is anyone still trying to kill you?
No. Death threats were par for the course, particularly if you were dealing with groups on the far right. Death threats to journalists are great copy for other journalists but the reality is, in my world anyway, a nurse dealing with drunks in A&E on a Saturday night is at greater risk than I’ve been.
Why did you move every ten years, then?
I had to move because of threats and security concerns. I did documentaries about organised crime and when I did a follow-up about ten years later one of the main figures involved told me that if he could have found me at the time he would have killed me and that it was reckless of my employers to put me in that position. It’s very rare for journalists to be killed. I don’t think I’m braver than anyone else — maybe I’m just more optimistic — but it was an issue in the past.
What programme are you most proud of?
I did an undercover investigation into care homes in 2000. That was very controversial because the police said I’d lied and made things up and threatened to sue the BBC. They said the assaults in the care home I reported on were minor but they’d given cautions for assaults, which means the person admitted it. And anyway, what’s a ‘minor assault’ when you’re talking about care homes? I sued the police and gave the money to charity but it resulted in changes in how people with learning disabilities are restrained in care homes. We treat the learning disabled better legislatively than other countries but we’re still a long way from where we should be.
Does doing shows such as The Jump affect your credibility as an investigative journalist?
I’m sure it does but shows like The Jump or Dancing On Ice are a wonderful break from the real world. I treat it like another undercover job — it’s just swapping your football hooligan or care home outfit for Lycra. And I came second in both of them, just on the basis of reckless enthusiasm. I really enjoyed doing them.
What’s the future of investigative journalism?
People have been talking about a lack of funding for decades — there’s never been more money invested in it than there is now but it’s disparate. Newspapers want to do investigations, it can define a newspaper, but they are expensive. Channel 4 News has done lots of good work and there are lots of international collaborations going on. The funding model has changed but the future has never looked brighter.
Disasters That Changed Britain is on History on Mondays at 9pm