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Faith is an incredibly powerful motivator

BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent Caroline Wyatt talks to Families First about the highs and lows of her career and how faith is changing in the UK

01 Mar 2016

How much do you think your childhood experiences influenced your decision to become a journalist and particularly a foreign correspondent?

I was adopted as a baby by the most wonderful family and grew up in the diplomatic life, moving around a lot. Being adopted definitely does have an impact on the way you see and experience the world because you’re growing up in a family you’re not biologically related to. My adopted dad is English and my adopted mum was Swiss, so I grew up speaking Swiss German at home, which again gives you a slightly different perspective on things. If you move constantly, you quickly get the idea the world is an incredibly varied place, that there’s an awful lot of good out there but there can also be really bad things right where you live, so it made me want to understand better what makes people tick and it sparked my curiosity about why people live the way they do. I lived in West Berlin when the Cold War was on and the Berlin Wall was still up and sometimes we would go over to the East for the day. You could see how different the two systems were and it was fascinating to meet people from a completely different ideological system and see how that played out in their lives, their hopes and their freedoms. When I was about 15, I remember seeing a newspaper ad for BBC Berlin correspondent and I thought that would be an amazing job but I never seriously thought I’d do anything like that.

Before becoming BBC religious affairs correspondent, you worked as BBC defence correspondent. In your reporting, do you find that conflict and religion increasingly overlap?

It has been fascinating to see that a lot of the issues I’ve covered from a different perspective over the last seven to eight years also sometimes have that religious dimension and one of the things I hope to do is to try and illuminate where religion intersects or where the misuse of religion intersects. I think because we’re an increasingly secular society in the West and in the UK, we’ve sometimes missed the perhaps misplaced idealism that can motivate people to do terrible things, sometimes genuinely believing they’re doing them for their faith. Faith is an incredibly powerful motivator and I think because of the way our society is constructed we quite often don’t appreciate the degree to which religion or faith are important in other places, and that globally the UK is probably the exception and not the rule.

Surveys show the number of people in Britain who say they believe in God or have faith is on the decline. What would you say is the outlook for faith in the UK?

Having faith today is a real decision for people. I think 50, 60 or 70 years ago, everyone in the UK took it for granted they would go to church and you were a bit different if you didn’t, whereas now I think it’s very much an active choice by the people who go. But equally if you look at our heritage and a lot of the ways our country’s laws are framed, most of it has a basis in Christianity and I think sometimes people forget that. Today, I think we have different challenges because we have a country that’s full of people of different faiths and how we navigate these challenges will decide what kind of society we become. I think we have to navigate them in a really sensitive way because the propaganda put out by groups like ISIS is trying to divide people in ways we shouldn’t be divided.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your work?

The hardest thing that any journalist has to do is to talk to parents who have lost a child or been bereaved. When I was covering defence, the thing I found hardest was talking to the widows and mums and dads who’d lost children in wars, but equally talking to refugees and people in Afghanistan and Iraq who’d also lost children in wars.

What have been some of the most fulfilling aspects of your work?

I think journalism is still one of the best jobs you can do. It really does allow you to have an insight into other people’s lives, into what motivates them, what makes them happy, what fulfils them and what kind of systems and governments are good for people. There have been so many different highlights: accompanying refugees from Kosovo back to their homes, for example, and seeing them discover that some of their relatives were still alive. In one case, one of the sisters we went back with found her home had been burned down but the other sister found her home was still there and that was such a mix of sadness and joy. Or going out on patrol with Royal Marines in Afghanistan on Christmas Day and them all coming back alive. There have been enormous highs like that because you get involved in other people’s lives.

Your career has taken you all over the world but are you now looking to spend more time in the UK?

I’ve decided I need to try and spend more time in one place! I still travel and I’ve been incredibly lucky to travel both with Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Those trips have been absolutely fascinating and it’s been a real privilege to see two pretty extraordinary religious leaders in action. I think religious leadership is something we haven’t really focused on – what it means and why it matters. So I’ve been able to carry on doing some travelling but also be at home a lot more because my parents are getting older and I’ve got nine lovely nieces and nephews whom I’d like to see lots more of. It’s lovely being part of a big family and being able to enjoy that side of life.

Follow Caroline on Twitter @CarolineWyatt

Update June 2018: At the time of interview Caroline was BBC Religious Affairs, Defence, Paris, Moscow, + Berlin/Bonn correspondent and  is now a BBC journalist and presenter