EXCLUSIVE: Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s international news supremo, has said she felt she was “fighting for the license fee” when broadcasting for weeks on end in Ukraine earlier this year, as she opened up about covering warzones, “painful” World Service cuts and the digital news revolution.
Doucet, the Chief International Correspondent who has been reporting from conflicts for decades, sat down with Deadline for a rare interview earlier this month in which she passionately defended the BBC and spoke of how the early days of the Ukraine war felt like a defining moment for the corporation’s existential future.
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“During those days we felt like we were fighting for the future of the license fee,” said Doucet, as Rishi Sunak’s new government ponders a review into the funding model, which was due to start around the time Boris Johnson stood down as Prime Minister several months ago.
“Every day, we woke up not knowing what was going to happen and felt [Ukraine] was a moment where the BBC was saying ‘We belong to all of you’.”
Doucet’s coverage in the first few weeks of the tragic war, which recently moved into its ninth month, was lauded globally and she developed a formidable on-screen partnership with fellow correspondent Clive Myrie, while always finding time to praise those behind-the-camera.
The coverage was received so positively that arch-BBC sceptic Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, the originator of the license fee review who has since moved on, used a parliamentary debate to emotionally heap praise on BBC and ITV journalists “risking their lives” on the frontline.
When they heard this news, the Ukraine-based BBC team “all cheered,” according to Doucet.
“Hearing Nadine say we had met our greatest test was amazing,” she said. “Imagine the alternative? If she had said ‘You’ve got it wrong,’ ‘You’re biased’ or ‘I’m not listening to you’ then that would have seriously mattered to us. Instead, we were proud to play our part in what felt like the very first rough draft of a piece of history.”
While observers questioned how Doucet remained so calm in the face of constant bombing, gunfire and having to seek refuge in shelters, she said her biggest fear throughout has been “getting the words, or the story, wrong.”
“That for me would be the killer blow,” she added.
While the news agenda has somewhat moved on, Doucet and her team occupied the coveted BBC Radio 4 Today program 8.10 a.m. (12.10 a.m. PT) slot for six weeks straight, which she said brought its own responsibilities. She was based in Ukraine for the first seven weeks of the war, before returning in May and then to Afghanistan in August.
The team also used the opportunity to blood the next generation of young reporters and producers such as Ukraine Correspondent James Waterhouse, according to Doucet, who were thrust into the spotlight due to the size of the operation initially providing almost round-the-clock coverage.
“We wanted to give these producers and correspondents a chance to be in this war of our time,” said Doucet. “At the time there was nothing but Ukraine – if you wanted politics, it was Ukraine, if you went to sport, it was Ukraine. The only thing that wasn’t about Ukraine was the weather.”
Championing the public broadcaster
The goodwill directed towards the BBC in the early days of the war has slipped of late, with high-profile incidents including, most recently, a BBC News presenter taken off air for saying she was “gleeful” after Johnson pulled out of the Prime Ministerial race. Sunak now needs to decide whether he proceeds with the license fee review, while the fee has already been frozen in line with inflation for the next two years, a move that will cost the corporation hundreds of millions of pounds in lost revenue as program costs skyrocket.
Canada-born Doucet is a huge champion of the 100-year-old public broadcaster and has spent the past couple of weeks speaking at a European Broadcasting Union conference and interviewing Director General Tim Davie at Mipcom Cannes, as she works tirelessly to preserve what makes the BBC great.
“As Tim Davie says, all we really want is respect and to be relevant,” she went on to say. “‘Relevance’ feels like an unremarkable word but it’s so important. We want a situation where if you want to find out if your team has won, or the weather in Cornwall, or what’s happening in the Ukraine war, you turn to the BBC. And you may not like the questions we ask or how we approach stories but you regard us as having been fair, well prepared and you respect what we are trying to do.”
The task has been made more difficult by government-enforced cuts to the BBC World Service that will soon see a net loss of around 380 jobs alongside a much-criticized merger of the domestic and international news channels, which will also see 70 jobs axed.
Doucet said she “gave [World Service Director] Liliane Landor a hug” when she heard the news.
“The cuts are painful and we still don’t know the shape with the merger and everything else going on,” she added.
“Because of inflation and the license fee being frozen our resources are going down and at those moments you have to think about what matters most. Those decisions are not for me and we have some very sharp editorial minds on this including Tim Davie. We want to be nimble when things happen and are experimenting.”
Elsewhere, the BBC and other global media networks have come in for criticism for the way in which they prioritized a ‘close-to-home’ war such as Ukraine over conflicts in the likes of Afghanistan or Yemen. Doucet, who has reported from Afghanistan for three decades, said this can be “frustrating.”
“This mattered to me because if anyone knows what it’s like to get invaded by the Russians, it’s Afghanistan [having been invaded by the USSR in the 1980s],” she added. “Refugees were waiting in Kabul or Pakistan to have their asylum applications processed in Britain and suddenly the doors opened for Ukrainians, with no forms to fill out or money to pay. It hurts.”
Ukraine also draws more attention due to its direct impact on the UK in areas such as energy bills and food costs, Doucet conceded.
The BBC is “cognisant” of the issues, she went on to say, citing several examples of its in-depth coverage of other nations such as the recent ‘Iran Day,’ which took place to mark four weeks since the death of Mahsa Amini, and reports from Somalia by Andrew Harding.
“Better engagement than Pornhub”
In recent years, Doucet has adapted to a digital news cycle that involves engaging with viewers on multiple platforms such as Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, alongside her traditional BBC reports.
“I got a message in Kabul about an online piece getting 500,000 views and was told my engagement was better than Pornhub,” she joked. “Gone are the days when you do your piece to camera and then finish. I have to engage and it’s endless.”
Doucet said the current digital-infused news landscape is “the best and worst of times for journalism,” with “so much information at our fingertips but at the same time so much disinformation.”
She shrugged off the competition from newer, U.S-style UK-based services such as GB News and Rupert Murdoch’s Talk TV and stressed that plurality is good, speaking on the day that GB News was censured by regulator Ofcom for an interview in which guest Naomi Wolf claimed Covid-19 vaccines are part of an effort to “destroy British civil society.”
Doucet criticized the U.S. news landscape, however, for lacking a “common space where you can hear all points of view.”
“You may be an NPR listener but if you only watch Fox or CNN then you tend to get a certain point of view,” she added. “An important element of democracy is having journalism allow for different points of view and once you get rid of that common space, you are in your own silo.”
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