There is something of Cinderella about the Stacey Dooley story. It is a tale where – as if by the wave of a magic wand – a humble person is made into a princess. And, what’s more, this humble person is kind, clever and brave and so deserves her good fortune. It is the kind of story that makes you believe that dreams can come true and that sometimes good people get their reward.
The bare outlines of this story go like this: once upon a time there was a Luton schoolgirl; a nice friendly girl but not apparently exceptional in any way. At 15 she leaves school without much in the way of qualifications and then does a series of local jobs. She works as a shop assistant at Luton Airport and in a hairdressers’ salon. So far so ordinary. And then (this is where the magic wand first does its stuff) she successfully applies to get involved in a BBC TV show that aims to take a group of fashion-obsessed young people to the sweatshops of Asia where the disposable fashion they so heedlessly consume is made.
One of the production team who made that programme – it was called Blood, Sweat and T-shirts – saw talent in Stacey and backing a hunch devised a series of investigations with her as the reporter. That was 10 years ago and Stacey has never looked back. She has clocked up more than 50 programmes. If you scroll through her credits the titles come out and hit you between the eyes: Kids for Sale, Sex-trafficking in Cambodia, Panorama: Stacey Meets the IS Brides, Sex, Stags and Prague, Young Sex for Sale in Japan. To be fair her oeuvre is not all about sex – most of it is not – but she is drawn to (or pointed in the direction of) subjects that have a tabloidy feel and are, supposedly, of particular interest to the young.
Stacey’s story is never going to serve as a useful career guide to the thousands of bright, cheerful, poorly educated young people out there. The magic wand touches only one in a million and no one can predict where next its golden touch will land, but Stacey’s story is nevertheless uplifting. She deserves her luck because she holds her own in a tough business.
Stacey brings something to the screen that is both appealing and rare: the confidence to be herself. Many TV professionals lack this; they might be competent at getting information across but in the process many become de-personalised and end up as mere vectors. That is not Stacey’s way; she is always there, still in some ways the girl from the hairdressing salon but transported to a foreign location where, more often than not, human tragedy is in the air.
I read a survey once which claimed that of all occupational groups hairdressers were the happiest. This was ascribed to the fact that they spend their days talking to people while performing a simple, personal service; small-talk (or “phatic communication”, as the linguists would have it) is a human device to establish a mood of sociability and cooperation. And unlike so many heavyweight TV current-affairs performers, who come burdened with the weight of the world’s misery on their shoulders, Stacey seems happy even in the face of tragedy. This is not to say she doesn’t empathise – she definitely does – but her persona is that of the sunbeam.
Dooley’s success has not made her universally popular. There was a flurry of criticism a few weeks ago when her Panorama film about western women who had become the wives of Islamic State fighters got a detail wrong. A gesture these deluded souls make with their index fingers was said by Dooley to be an “IS salute”. This clip from the programme was released as a trailer and immediately provoked a social media storm by those people ever-protective of Islam’s image; in fact, they said, the gesture was a symbol of ‘tawhid’ representing the oneness of Allah. Stacey and the BBC apologised but such spats seem unlikely to derail Dooley’s career.
She is much resented by some other journalists. With so many programmes now under her belt Dooley herself clearly is a journalist. But her credentials in this regard are still under challenge. One well-known female columnist and commentator loftily dismissed her Panorama offering with the phrase: “let’s not pretend we’re dealing with any kind of journalist”.
There has always been a tendency among journalists to regard themselves as a special caste uniquely endowed to interpret the world. In British current-affairs TV what are especially prized are those twin sacred cows, objectivity and impartiality; these are the supposed hallmark of the heavyweight reporter, who generally also comes straitjacketed into a rigid political correctness. In practice, ‘objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’ lead to awkwardly contrived standpoints at odds with the common sense of the viewing public.
Had someone other than Dooley been sent off to meet the IS wives I have no doubt that western governments – our own in particular – would have been put in the dock for some perceived wickedness. You get none of that with Stacey. With her you get an authentic emotional reaction; she clearly didn’t much like the IS women and deplored their choices, and I’m with her on that. She’s not pretending to be objective about the plight of these foolish women and their children – she’s just looking on, horrified, and inviting us to share her feelings.
You wouldn’t want every presenter to do it the Dooley way; that would be too much of the good thing. She was always going to be a one-off rather than mainstream, and in being so she is a refreshing and necessary antidote to so much that is solemn, pompous and phoney about current affairs television.
Stacey’s apotheosis was when she won Strictly Come Dancing in 2018. I thought at the time that that might be the moment her journalistic career fell away beneath her like a spent booster rocket as she continued into the higher reaches of Celebristan. But that didn’t happen, and Stacey has remained true to her calling. Bravo then for Stacey and bravo too for the BBC which spotted, then nurtured and now supports her distinctive brand of citizen journalism.