With an accent on the news
Lyse Doucet, Artsci’80, almost certainly has the largest audience of any Canadian newscaster. Through her journalism on BBC World News television, BBC World Service radio, and the BBC website, she reaches a global audience estimated at 270 million people.
However, the Queen’s alumna is resigned to the fact that few in her audience even know she’s Canadian. “When people say, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ I know what’s coming: ‘Where are you from?’” Even Canadian listeners are unaware of her nationality, says Lyse. “So every three or four years, I go on a BBC program to explain my accent.”
Her accent may be difficult to place, but the Bathurst, NB, native still carries a Canadian passport and says she feels “100 per cent Canadian.” While Lyse grew up in an English-speaking family, she can trace her Acadian ancestry back to a shipmate of Samuel de Champlain. She takes great pride in her heritage and attends the Acadian World Congress, a cultural festival held every five years. “It would be hypocritical to spend all my time learning about other tribes if I were to neglect my own,” she says.
Lyse, who’s lively and sociable, often returns to Canada to visit family and to collect various honours that have come her way – including honorary degrees from the U of New Brunswick in 2006 and the U of T in June 2009. However, she divides most of her time between anchoring news programs from the BBC studios in London and reporting from the Middle Eastern and South Asian hotspots where she built her reputation as a foreign correspondent.
Lyse had her first taste of journalism at Queen’s, writing for The Journal while earning an Honours B.A. Studying ethnicity and nationality with political scientist George Perlin, Arts’62, she recalls, reinforced her interest in her own Acadian culture and stimulated her curiosity about other peoples.
In the early 1980s, she volunteered with Canadian Crossroads International – she’s still an honorary patron of the non-profit organization – to teach English in an Ivory Coast village for four months. She then spent five years traveling in West Africa, and freelancing for Canadian media and for the BBC, which had just opened a West Africa bureau. This proved to be the first stage of a 15-year career as a BBC foreign correspondent. Lyse was later based in Kabul and Islamabad, and traveled frequently to Tehran. Her last postings were in Amman and then Jerusalem.
But it’s to Afghanistan that she keeps returning – “With my heart as well as my head,” she says.
Lyse was the only Western correspondent able to obtain a visa to enter the country as the Soviet army was withdrawing in 1988, and she broadcast exclusive reports on developments there. Doing so, she got to know Hamid Karzai well before he became President of Afghanistan. Shortly after Karzai came to office in 2002, he invited Lyse and her film crew to a family wedding in Kandahar. They were the only foreign newspeople present, and filmed an assassination attempt on Karzai as his convoy was leaving the governor’s mansion.
However, Lyse didn’t spend all of her time in Afghanistan talking with the elite. She became active with Aschiana, a charity that provides basic education and hot lunches for Afghan street children. Lyse “opened the door” for a shoeshine boy to become a BBC producer in Kabul. “If you know the most powerful,” she says, “you should at least try to help the most vulnerable.”
While living in the developing world, Lyse has not only improved her French but also learned basic Dari (spoken by 50 per cent of Afghans) and a smattering of other languages. “I can greet people in so many languages that my friends say I should be the correspondent for Hello! Magazine,” she quips.
Since 1999, Lyse has been based in London, but she has also been deployed to anchor special news coverage from the field. She reported on Iran’s disputed presidential election last June, the 2008 Israeli offensive in Gaza, the 2006 Lebanon War, and the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001.
She traveled to Pakistan to cover the 2005 earthquake and to India and Indonesia to report on the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004. “It took your breath away to see whole towns completely wiped out,” she recalls. “How do people pick up the pieces of their lives? It’s humbling. There are moments when you feel incredibly privileged to be part of a process where the world finds out what’s happening.”