Stacey Dooley: “Sometimes everyone on TV is over 50, white and male”

The face of BBC3 discusses moving the channel online and her continued work with sex workers

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Stacey Dooley feels as if she’s grown up on screen, but nothing in her short life prepared her for the world of prostitution. “The appetite and the customers will always exist,” the BBC3 presenter declares, making the case for legalisation. “We have to make it as safe as possible, regulate it, and [let] the girls take charge. The killings come when the girls have to go down an alley alone. That’s when they catch STDs, because they’re forced to have sex without condoms.”

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Dooley’s new series, Sex in the Strangest Places (coming to BBC3 soon), explores prostitution in Turkey, Brazil and Russia. She has researched sex work closer to home, too. “I haven’t met a prostitute here who says British men treat her as they should… Just think if we had brothels with security and a panic button – and the girls were able to choose their work, and they paid taxes, and the lads knew they had to use protection. There would be fewer murders, fewer STDs.”

The 28-year-old is convivial, but there’s a steeliness beneath. In the Turkish episode, she proves equally adept at spurning young men asking for a “gang bang” outside a brothel (“They looked so young. I remember thinking: ‘where are your parents?’”) and at interviewing Isis brides, one of whom is so traumatised she shakes as she speaks. Dooley says the scariest moment was in Gaziantep, near the Turkish/ Syrian border, where there’s an Isis presence. She never left the hotel there: “I am transparent white, so people might start asking questions.”

What surprised Dooley while making the series was that there was a pecking order among the prostitutes in each country. In Turkey, where prostitution is legal, the Syrian women were “even more degraded”; in Brazil, transgender women were “at the bottom of the pyramid”; and in Russia, “high-end prostitutes make a killing” and are socially accepted because of their “posh bags and penthouses”, while women who work the streets are second-class citizens.

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Dooley has been making documentaries for nearly a decade now. Her first TV appearance – aged 19 –was in 2008 as a participant in the fast-fashion documentary series Blood, Sweat and T-shirts. Afterwards, then BBC3 controller Danny Cohen called her in to ask if she would like to present her own series. “I was working at Luton airport as a promotions girl, selling perfume and make-up, so I thought, ‘What’s going on?’” she recalls. “It’s like a cringey rags-to-riches story: from Luton to the world!”

She adds that, for the first five years of her career, the “highbrow newspapers” insisted on calling her “Stacey Dooley, the shop assistant from Luton”. She believes this was an advantage, though. “I think BBC3 gave me my first commissions because I wasn’t a middle-class, highbrow journalist. I was able to speak to the contributors on a level that perhaps some journalists don’t. If I had tried to adopt the tone and vibe of other serious journalists, that would have come across as insincere, forced and false.”

Does she see herself as a serious broadcaster now? “Yeah. I’ve grown. When I was 19, I didn’t necessarily know what made good TV, but nine years is a long time. And we’ve done well.” In 2014, she was shortlisted for a Grierson Award, as best documentary presenter. “I was the only female, the only one not privately educated, the only one under-50, in that category!”

So would she like to progress to Newsnight one day? She laughs. “You never know, do ya? I’m still so happy here… but the BBC has been very good to me. So who knows, eh?”

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Working on BBC3 allows her to be emotionally involved with her material. Would she struggle with impartiality elsewhere? “I know some people believe impartiality is key, and it’s necessary in some situations, but in others – if something is so fundamentally wrong, why do we have to make out we’re impartial?” She cites a man she interviewed in Honduras: “He told me he had cut his wife’s head off with a machete, because she didn’t listen to him. It wouldn’t be me not to push, to be impartial.”

I note that you don’t hear many accents like hers (she pronounces Istanbul as “East-Tan-ball”) on TV. Is news a middle-aged, middle-class bubble? “Without a doubt! You’d hope that, in a few years, we’d have people from different backgrounds on TV, because sometimes everyone is over 50, they’re white and they’re male – and that isn’t representative of people watching TV.”

Dooley stresses that BBC3 doesn’t match up to the stereotype of the corporation as being full of “middle-aged men wearing chinos”. But its youth channel status has also seen it written off. Do patronising ideas about it persist?

“Oh, 100 per cent! Though that’s an old mentality. When critics talk about Three, they talk about Don’t Tell the Bride and Snog Marry Avoid?, but we’re also making important documentaries. We take hard-hitting issues and make them accessible. We’ve earned our stripes.”

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She’s struck, in particular, by the diversity of her audience: “I can get a 14-year-old kid in his school uniform come up to me and, the same day, a 60-year-old at the make-up counter.”

But with BBC3 going online, does she worry about keeping her viewers? “No, I think it’s the future. People don’t sit down in the way they used to watch TV. We’re lucky because we’re one of the first to be doing it. In five years’ time, that’s where a lot of people will be heading.”

She’s quick to stress the advantages of online programming, too, such as no longer feeling constrained by time slots. “I’ve filmed so many documentaries, and 40 minutes into the edit, it feels quick and exciting, but then you’re rattling around going, ‘Aagh! We’ve got to find another 17 minutes!’ To have that luxury, that freedom, is something few others have. We’d be silly not to take advantage of that.”

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Dooley has two more projects coming up: a documentary, Brainwashing Stacey, and short films following child refugees. She feels the latter is a great untold story: “Every time I watch a piece on the news, it’s a guy in Gore-Tex in front of the boats. You see glimpses of the kids being marched off, but I’ve never heard them asked, ‘Where’s your family? How do you feel?’”