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Interview: Lyse Doucet, presenter, foreign correspondent

29 May 2015

'The best of journalism is being there, on the ground, in the heat and dust'


On the ground: Lyse Doucet reporting for the BBC from the scene of a car-bomb attack in Syria in 2012

On the ground: Lyse Doucet reporting for the BBC from the scene of a car-bomb attack in Syria in 2012

It is the scale and scope of Syria that is so shocking. Just when you think it can't get any worse it does. Flattened neighbourhoods become shattered cities. Anguished hospital scenes after an attack are a terrible testament to the brutality of war.


And then you come upon the scene of a village massacre, with charred bodies lying where people just going about their day were burnt alive. The worst of all is seeing people living under siege, unable to escape, as we saw in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk just outside Damascus. The depth of desperation and devastation was overwhelming. All wars impose a terrible burden on civilians, but Syria's war is brutal.


Islamic State is a terrible misnomer. Its supporters do not adhere to the true tenets of Islam. Its rule does not amount to a state which cares for its people. Their savage kidnappings, beheadings, and executions of Arabs and foreigners is barbaric, and a violation of every known creed.


I've met many people from many walks of life, and many nationalities, trying to do good in Syria. Some of their actions are nothing less than heroic. Workers with non-governmental aid agencies make risky journeys; volunteer doctors work in impossible conditions; young freelance journalists put their lives on the line to tell this story to the world.


UN officials often get criticised for spending too much on their own security, and spending too much time in government-controlled areas. But I've met many UN employees who've put themselves in the line of fire to reach people in difficult, dangerous areas, or to carry out missions which cross between government and rebel-held areas.


I grew up in a small town in eastern Canada, where religion is woven into people's lives. We grew up going to church on Sundays, and sometimes during the week. The Catholic Women's League and the Knights of Columbus helped with all the rituals of life, from baptisms to funerals, and the Protestants had similar community groups. Nuns taught in Catholic schools, we had missionaries in my extended family, and my sister and I became "altar boys" before it was approved by the Vatican. But my generation also had all the usual rites of passage, including under-age drinking, a sampling of mild drugs, and student protests.


Ancestry matters, what's "bred in the bone". On my father's side, my ancestry is Acadian, a French-speaking people expelled by the British in 1755 from the eastern seaboard of what is now Canada. My mother's family traces its roots back to Ireland. And we also think we have a bit of the indigenous Migmaw culture. I spend most of my time in places where history is not a forgotten past - it is lived in the present. It is part of who we are.


After I completed my Master's degree at the University of Toronto in Canada, I wanted to become a foreign correspondent. I had no money and little experience, but I went to Africa on a four-month volunteer placement with Canadian Crossroads International, at a rural school in Ivory Coast, West Africa. When it finished, I started writing my first freelance articles. I soon found myself in the "right place, right time". The BBC was setting up its first West Africa office, and needed some extra help - and there I was. And here I am ever since.


I'm proud of every story that tells people something they didn't know, or changes their mind about something they do know.


The greatest frustrations are when you can't visit a country because you can't get a visa, have been blocked by some official or powerful person, or it's simply too dangerous.


I've never felt a conflict between what I believe is the story on the ground and what my job with a public broadcaster with global channels expects of me. I don't believe in emotional broadcasting, but I do believe in empathy.


The best of journalism is "being there", on the ground in the heat and dust, talking to people, face to face. The most privileged moments are those where you know you are not just reporting in the margins of history but right in the middle of it. It's an incredible privilege to be able to tell those stories to Britain and the world.


Studio presenting is also important, to bring the threads of a story together with a bit more distance and a relative calm - although studios can be fast-paced and unpredictable, too.


We live in the best of times and the worst of times for journalists. We've never had such an array of technology which allows us to broadcast from almost anywhere, as a story happens. But, in some parts of the world, it's never been so dangerous to be a journalist. In places, we are no longer on the front line: we are the front line - kidnapped, killed, and targeted in growing numbers. And there also places not at war where intelligence services wage their own wars on media by extensive surveillance, which can become threatening.


Journalism thrives when there are different voices with different perspectives. It's important to hear all of them, secular and religious. We all have beliefs and, for some people, they are not rooted in religious texts. It's important for the media to reflect this.


Religion, what people believe in, is a powerful force. And it can be used for good and bad.


There are more and more stories that do demand an understanding of religion. It's needed more than ever to sharpen journalists' ability to discern when religious beliefs are being manipulated for political or cultural ends. Stories like female genital mutilation, abuses against women, and the growing lure of the so-called Islamic State in many countries worldwide are just a few examples.


I am a person of faith, and was brought up in a Roman Catholic family. But my travels take me to countries of other faiths and to people of no faith. When I lived in predominantly Muslim countries, I occasionally went to the mosque with women friends. In Jerusalem, I went to synagogues, churches, and mosques. I think my beliefs draw on many great books and beliefs now.


In most places I have lived and worked as a journalist, people put their faith in God and live by the rituals and requirements of their religion. Traditions of great hospitality draw on their faith, but also deep-seated cultural norms. I have been honoured as treasured guest too many times to count.


The strong women of my family have been a great influence on me, from grandmothers, to aunts, to my mother and sisters.


The abuse of power, in too many places, is what makes me angry.


I relax by walking, reading, swimming, meditating, cooking, breaking bread with friends, going to art galleries. The most restful place is to be by the sea, since I grew up on a bay on the Atlantic Ocean.


I used to quote the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who spoke of "optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect"; but now I quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who speaks of being "a prisoner of hope". Wherever I go, I see people in desperate conditions who've lost almost everything. The last thing people lose is hope. It's not a life without it.


I can think of many close friends who would be perfect companions [if I were locked in a church],but since it's a church I think I would choose Archbishop Desmond Tutu. If time dragged on, I would learn more about faith, about fighting for everyone's rights. He would also make me laugh, and would sing and dance in the aisles.


Lyse Doucet was this week given a Trustees Award by the Sandford St Martin's Trust, which promotes excellence in religious broadcasting.

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