Stacey Dooley – the queen of documentaries on her latest series, her worst fears and the gender pay gap

A mainstay of BBC Three, Stacey Dooley has turned her candid, relatable documentary style to subjects ranging from child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo to tourism in Thailand. Her compassion and candour make her both an engaging presenter and somebody her interviewees instantly feel comfortable speaking to, but being an investigative journalist wasn’t always the plan. “When I was given my first gig, and I had no real appetite for a career,” she says. “I just worked to get money so I could live!” We caught up with Stacey ahead of her latest documentary, Stacey Dooley Investigates: Second Chance Sex Offenders, in which she spends time in Florida, where sex offenders are punished for life. 

I watched Second Chance Sex Offenders last night, and it’s brilliant. What was it like making it? 

“It was tricky. The central question was “can we rehabilitate these people?” They’re the only people who serve a crime and people aren’t willing to give them a second chance to, but I’ve filmed so much with victims and survivors of abuse and child-abuse and it’s no secret that my loyalties lie with them. So it was tricky to navigate such an emotional topic, but it was really interesting.”

Do you ever find it hard when you do have to put your personal opinions and views aside when it comes to such serious and difficult subjects like this one? 

“Yes, it is tricky. You’re only human and what they’ve done repulses you. You do have to learn to put that to one side and try and stay as unemotional as possible, and just try to draw out the facts and be factually accurate – but it’s tricky. Especially when it comes to abuse and child abuse, it’s the hardest thing.”

It’s been 10 years since you joined the BBC. What have you learned in that time?

“I think I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work, and tonally you find your feet. You’re never going to be perfect at the start. I’m certainly not perfect now.”

Did you ever imagine you’d become a household name? 

“No, it’s crazy, it’s properly mental. It was never a considered decision to go down this route – it just naturally unfolded.”

You’ve been instrumental in exposing so many different stories. Is there one that will always stick with you?

“You love them all for different reasons, but we did one about the Yazidi Girls in Northern Iraq and that felt monumental and very important. These were girls who were taken by ISIS in 2014, and it was genocide – they [ISIS] massacred all the men and they took the women and used them as sex slaves. We went to visit them when they were on the front line fighting back, trying to kill their perpetrators. That felt really important.”

Do you ever feel scared when filming? 

“Oh my god, yeah! All the time. I’m such a wimp. That’s the funny thing, people are like, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do it, I’d always be frightened’. I’m nervous, pretty much 90 percent of the time. I might give myself a heart attack. You just have to try and be brave, and be courageous, and stick your heels in – otherwise you wouldn’t do anything. I don’t even like flying! The fact I get on a fucking plane to get there is a miracle in itself! Yeah, I try not to let it take over too much.”

How do you cope with the emotional side of the heavy topics you discuss? 

“I think you have to make sure you switch off, because they are quite harrowing. Some of these people you’ve spend time with have had their lives devastated, and it’s very heavy, so you just have to try your best to work really hard, do the documentary and turn off and not dwell on things too much.”

Do you ever worry about getting compassion fatigue?

“Yeah, you totally do when you’ve seeing such devastation. I was in Mosul [in Iraq] last year and I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was like a horror movie, nothing was intact. I remember I could smell something, and I looked to my right and there were two bodies, and one of the guys I was with said they were ISIS fighters – that’s why no one’s come for them. And at that moment I was really trying to hold it down because the camera was on, so I had a wobbly 30 seconds and I was able to get myself together quite quickly – and after that I thought ‘Oh God, I mustn’t’. Life is life, and you’ve got to be mindful of that.”

When were you most scared when filming a documentary? 

“Iraq. Iraq is fucking scary man. I been to Honduras, Congo and lots of hostile areas – but Iraq was just another level for me. Mosul is intense. And we were there three months after it had been liberated so there were still loads of IEDs unexploded, there were still sleeper cells and there was a lot going on. So you put things in place so that if it kicks you have a route out – but you never really know. I’m always frightened in Iraq.”

Your first book On the Frontline with the Women who Fight is out on February 15 – how exciting is it having that come out?

“It’s crazy. It’s one of those pinch-yourself moments! I never in a million years thought I’d publish a book, but here we are. I’m feeling very lucky, and grateful they trusted me to do it. I hope people find it interesting. You just don’t know do you, I have never done it before! So it’s finding my feet.”

Why did you decide that the book was something you wanted to do? 

“It felt like the right time. People had been asking, and somebody asked a couple of years back and it didn’t feel quite right. So we decided that now was the time as it’s been a decade. It was a decade of meeting these amazing women, there was a lot to look back on, it was a moment to take a minute and to pause, and to see what we’ve learned and what we’ve come across, so I think we waited and it was right to do so. It’s just a reflection really on everything we have covered.”

As somebody affiliated to the BBC, how do you feel about Carrie Gracie’s resignation as China editor over pay discrimination?

“Lots of people have asked me about this, I mean I have a very basic, straightforward view: I think women that are doing the same work, the same workload and they’re as experienced, there is no question that everybody should be paid equally. Whether you’re a man or a women – whatever your gender – if you’re doing a job and you’re doing it well, you should be paid accordingly. I champion women who are brave and who speak out. Good for them.”

Stacey Dooley Investigates: Second Chance Sex Offenders will be available on BBC Three from January 24 via the BBC iPlayer

On the Frontline with the Women who Fight back by Stacey Dooley is published by BBC Books on February 15, price £14.99 hardback