Sir Trevor McDonald on Mafia Women, Donald Trump and the future of ITV News

“As a civilisation we have had challenging moments before and we have managed to survive them”

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Sir Trevor McDonald has met some extraordinary people in his time. He was the first reporter to interview Nelson Mandela following his release from prison in 1990, and is the only British journalist ever to have sat down with Saddam Hussein. You would think that after a fifty-year journalism career spanning such events as the South African anti-apartheid movement and the Iraq War, nothing much would shock Sir Trevor. But two things certainly do: Mafia women… and Donald Trump. But we’ll get to him later.

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Mafia Women with Trevor McDonald is a new two-part documentary that sees the veteran broadcaster meeting the mafia wives, girlfriends and daughters of Brooklyn, Staten Island and Florida, uncovering a new perspective on what it means to live amongst the money, violence, glamour and treachery of the Mob.

Since McDonald stepped down from ITV’s News at Ten in 2008, he has been at the helm of numerous hard-hitting documentaries, ranging from Inside Death Row to Women Behind Bars. In 2015 he made The Mafia, a series investigating the men at the heart of the age-old fraternity. It was following this that the women in the mobsters’ lives expressed an interest to “speak up for themselves”, McDonald explains. “The women watched it and thought, ‘Maybe we should have a voice too, and talk about what our views were on what you guys were up to. What it did to our lives and the compromises we had to make.’”

One such woman is Linda Scarpa, daughter of notorious hit man Greg ‘the Grim Reaper’ Scarpa who stopped counting his victims after he reached fifty – “No one can calculate the exact number of people he killed. I mean, it’s extraordinary,” McDonald says, “He went on a killing spree.”

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Trevor McDonald and Linda Scarpa

In tonight’s episode, McDonald is sitting on a sofa with Linda Scarpa, against the backdrop of blank living room walls. She tells a deeply disturbing story about how when she was very young her father beat her best friend to a pulp because she’d been smoking marijuana with him, he was beaten so badly that he couldn’t open his eyes at all. She then breaks down when McDonald shows her videos from her childhood, and confesses that she doesn’t have any photos on the wall because it makes it too hard to move on with her life. “You see a lot of pain on her face even now,” says McDonald. 

McDonald is careful to note that while these women are victims “in a real sense”, they do not see themselves that way. “They are undoubtedly victims but that is not to imply that they were soft, downtrodden women.” Instead, they are “rather proud of being associated with this great, great fraternity… and they kind of reaped a lot of benefits from it. Whatever the downsides, and they were considerable, they lived very well off the proceeds of what these guys did,” he says. But how could women like Linda Scarpa forgive the atrocities that the men in their lives committed? “It’s a loyalty to the mafia,” says McDonald. “A loyalty that transcends almost everything else.”

While McDonald was in the States meeting these women last autumn, America was enduring the last leg of the US presidential campaigns, and living in the (relative) calm before the storm when Donald Trump won the presidency and became arguably the most powerful man on the planet. The burgeoning Trump era, McDonald says, is “one of the most challenging [times] that I’ve ever experienced… it is extraordinarily challenging.”

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Given everything that McDonald has witnessed during his five-decade-long media career, his comments really say something about the abnormality of the current political climate. Yet he remains upbeat about the future.

“As a civilisation we have had challenging moments before and we have managed to survive them.”

While it may not quite rival some of the global upheavals McDonald has reported on, he’s seen some changes in the how and when of news delivery. For the majority of his career, McDonald was at ITV News where, as he himself remarks, he has worked through several shifts in the timing of the national nightly bulletin. This included the so-called “News at When?” fiasco in 1999 when ITV tinkered with the schedules to pave the way for football, blockbuster drama and other events.

Now, The Nightly Show – a forthcoming weeknight entertainment series with David Walliams – is pushing ITV’s so-called News at Ten back to 10:30pm for eight weeks. Could this be the ITV news’s final surrender to the BBC’s 10pm bulletin? “I survived it, and I hope they do, too,” McDonald says.

With all his talk of survival it seems that, while Sir Trevor McDonald may be shocked by Mafia women and Donald Trump, he remains an eternal optimist.

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Mafia Women with Trevor McDonald is on ITV on Thursday 6th February at 9pm