Laureation address – Lyse Doucet
Laureator: Professor Sally Nikoline Cummings
Thursday 26 June 2014
Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Lyse Doucet for the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
Most if not all of us gathered or watching today are part of that daily 270 million who receive news from the BBC World Service and BBC World, employer of highly acclaimed chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet. Every day Lyse Doucet’s picture is on the front page of the World News section of the BBC website; every day her news feeds and enriches our personal and professional lives. Jacques Derrida’s dismissal of the necessity of biography to evaluate our present seems almost relevant to presenting Doucet – ever modest and practical; she is not one to sing her own praises. But I would like to indulge us briefly in her timeline, and rather like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button go in reverse, in the spirit of Button’s well-known line ‘For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be’.
Most recently Doucet has been based in Syria. Witnessing evidence of a massacre outside Homs, not on the battlefields but in village homes, she describes how ‘[T]here were charred bodies, bullets to the head. People shot, then burned alive. It was a war crime, and so we filmed it. Of course we did.’ Although reporting war, she does not call herself a war correspondent. Describing her approach to journalism, she says: ‘I want you to come out of your living rooms and let me take you with me. Let me bring you to the story.’ One of her recent reports from Syria focused not on the frontline battles, but rather the plight of the country’s ice-cream parlours. ‘There has been traditional Arabic ice-cream, bakdash, in Damascus since 1895, and for the Syrians, it’s a barometer of how bad life is getting if those parlours close. You paint a small picture, and that tells the bigger story. And, you know, I wasn’t going to ask the people there whether they supported Assad or the rebels. They were ordinary people who just wanted to get on with their lives – go to school, study for their exams, eat ice-cream. Everybody looks for the little treats in their daily lives. Syrians are no different’.
Since the mid-1990s she has covered a series of major events in the Middle East. They include: Iran’s disputed presidential election; the 2008 Israeli offensive in Gaza; the 2006 Lebanon War; and the US military campaigns in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001. In 2007 she was named International Television Personality of the Year by the Association for International Broadcasting. She played a critical role in the BBC’s coverage of the Arab Spring, reporting from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Already in 1988 Doucet was reporting from Pakistan, and was based in Kabul from late 1988 to the end of 1989 to cover the Soviet troop withdrawal and its aftermath. From 1983 to 1988, Doucet worked as a freelancer in West Africa for the Canadian media and for the BBC.
In 1982, Lyse Doucet completed a Masters in International Relations at the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Arts degree also from Canada, from Queen’s University at Kingston in 1980, where she wrote for the University Newspaper. She was born in Canada, in Bathurst, New Brunswick and is proud of her Acadian family ancestry. However, she notes ‘When people say, “Can I ask you a question?” I know what’s coming: “Where are you from?” So every three or four years, I go on a BBC programme to explain my accent’.
Explaining her professional philosophy, she recounts: ‘The idea is to be as close…as possible, to give voice to people here. When I go to a place, I do like to stay. I spent five years in Africa then another five in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, and now five in the Middle East. I like to get stuck in’. This drive to understand and respect other cultures is key to the sharpness and accuracy of her reporting. By chance I was recently seated beside a Syrian journalist and asked him if he had worked with Lyse Doucet. ‘Of course’, he replied, ‘she is one of my closest colleagues’. She has an unrivalled ability to listen – even in the face of considerable distraction she holds the gaze of her respondent, impressing upon them that their information is highly important and unique. Her producer David Hurst echoed this attribute when he said that Doucet ‘has an incredible ability to make contacts. I’ve never seen anything like it’. One newspaper article summarizes how ‘[A]ccording to those who have worked with her, Doucet is not just good, but one of the best in the business’.
Lyse Doucet regularly dismisses compliments of her bravery. She remembers a time in Jerusalem, emerging from a market on Jaffa Road when a suicide bomb went off: ‘You freeze first, then you look around, then, thinking like a journalist, you go back into the market, and on to the scene’. In an address during a service for war wounded in 2010 the then war correspondent Marie Colvin said there had never been a more dangerous time to follow in the footsteps of her predecessors Richard Dimbleby, Martha Gellhorn and others. Fifteen months later, Colvin was killed in the Syrian city of Homs. Some journalists are deliberately targeted, others are killed by accident, and still others take calculated risks. A couple of weeks ago, with this year’s addition of ten names from 2013, Washington DC’s Newseum’s Journalists Memorial will recognize a total of 2,256 reporters, photographers, broadcasters and news executives from around the world, dating back to 1837. The Memorial is a harsh reminder of the sacrifices and risks individuals like Lyse Doucet make in their pursuit of indispensable on-the-ground, well-balanced and in-depth reporting.
Chancellor, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to international journalism, I invite you to confer on Lyse Doucet the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.