BBC Correspondent Lyse Doucet Speaks at the Inaugural Peter Stursberg Foreign Correspondents Lecture

By Joseph Mathieu
Photos by Chris Roussakis

“We wish that wars and war correspondents didn’t have to exist, but they do. The world is more peaceful now, but the wars which go on are forever wars. Destroying hopes and dreams of entire generations.”

So said broadcaster Lyse Doucet as she defined just how important conflict coverage truly is at the inaugural Peter Stursberg foreign correspondents lecture on Nov. 8.

The BBC’s chief international correspondent gave an evocative lecture followed by a Q&A with the CBC’s Paul Kennedy about the need for strong storytelling.

From these conflicts, she said, come stories about families just trying to survive, stories about mothers, fathers and children.

In partnership with the Canadian War Museum, Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication hosted the first annual lecture in the Barney Danson Theatre.

Doucet chronicled the legacy of the lecture’s namesake, a famed Canadian war correspondent.  She skillfully spliced in snippets of his 1940s reporting to demonstrate just how Stursberg had been “a masterclass of radio.”

Stursberg was a trailblazing journalist sent to cover the Second World War in 1943. In 1939, Doucet said the CBC was just a baby, only three years old. “And like any baby, it was really just about singing, dancing, entertainment.”

But war soon took over the airwaves. Although newspapers also covered the war, they lacked “that intimacy and immediacy, and the impact, of radio.”

Stursberg, who passed away in 2014, played a pioneering role in delivering a very real sense of what it was like to be there. His work was the gold standard, said Doucet. He covered the Canadian invasion of Sicily, the liberation of Holland, the entry of Allied troops into Berlin, and broadcast from within the bunker where Adolf Hitler spent his last days. Stursberg went on to become the first CBC correspondent to the United Nations, the Ottawa editor of Toronto Star, and was one of the founders of CTV News.

His children, Judith Lawrie and Richard Stursberg, former executive vice-president of CBC English services, established an endowed fund at Carleton University in his name. One part helps a graduate student complete a thesis or research project on media and conflict, and another created the foreign correspondent lecture series.

From her vantage point in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Syria since the 1980s, Doucet has seen the coverage of conflict change drastically. Social media has upended the way people get their news, and she referenced a recent report in The Economist that “users in rich countries touch their phones an average of 2,600 times a day.”

“Never have we been able to know so much, but never have we struggled so much to know what is REALLY happening,” she said. “There is so much information, too much information, and so much misinformation. Sometimes even journalists like me want to turn the radio off, turn the computer off, turn away.”

But she won’t. Foreign correspondents need to keep painting pictures of victories and defeats and covering the people who are racing ahead and those who are being left behind.

Doucet pointed to the work of Iraqi photographer Ali Arkady, whose pictures and videos were featured in the Toronto Star.

As a freelance photojournalist for the Star and ABC News, Arkady embedded with the Iraqi government’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) in 2016 and was given unprecedented access to their activities. What he documented were war crimes — murder and torture — and he received death threats from ERD members with the publication of his reporting. He was forced to flee his home in Baghdad with his wife and child.

When his editor from ABC News, Rhonda Schwartz, called him in hiding to say they could wait to run his work, Arkady said it was just the opposite, she had to hurry. He said that if the world could not see and hear what he documented it was all for naught.

“How lucky are we, to be allowed to go home,” Doucet said to the large audience, many of whom were young journalists. “Some people can’t. Your job is really to bring back what’s happening, to convey the fullness of what you see.”

But there is really only one fear on the frontlines for a foreign correspondent, she said. The fear that your words won’t be enough.