Tell me about your career. How did you get interested in journalism? Did you always want to be a writer?
I was always interested in journalism. When I was about six, I remember asking my mum about the differences between all the different newspapers. She then bought half a dozen, and we made a spreadsheet to compare them, so that I could contrast broadsheets and tabloids, and so on.
I got my break through editing my student newspaper at university. At the time, The Guardian ran a student media award scheme, and I won one of those awards in 2009. The prize was a paid internship at the Guardian, which I did during the holidays in the final year of my degree. That then led to a freelance contract on the Guardian features desk. I was very lucky.
What drew you to reporting about foreign politics?
After a while on the features desk, I wanted to learn different skills — so I started applying for jobs on the news desk, both in Britain and overseas. Eventually I got lucky again, and landed the post of Egypt Correspondent, based in Cairo. I soon found myself covering the Egyptian counter-revolution, and the violence that followed. A couple of years later, this led to a new role covering migration — just as the European refugee crisis began.
Why did you decide to move from the Guardian to the New York Times? How is your job different now?
I love the Guardian and am deeply grateful for all the many opportunities my former colleagues gave me. But I didn’t want to risk falling into a comfort zone — and joining the New York Times allows me to keep on learning at another extraordinary journalistic institution.
My job is quite different now. Before, I had a fixed beat — covering Egyptian politics and culture, for example, or the European refugee crisis. Now my brief is quite open-ended, and I am more focused on longterm projects rather than breaking news.
Why do you think it’s important for young readers to take an interest in and be informed about foreign politics?
Now more than ever, our lives in Britain are defined by what’s happening outside Britain’s borders — by negotiations in Brussels between the British government and the European Union. By what President Trump says and does in Washington. By wars in the Middle East that have sent thousands of refugees to Europe, and in some cases to Britain. If you want to understand what’s happening at home, you have to know what’s happening abroad.
What stays consistent in how you find and report stories, even when you are traveling around the world?
Wherever you work, and whatever you write about, you’ve always got to talk to as many people as possible, and read as much about your chosen subject as you can. The more you research, the more interviews you do, the more you read, the better your article, and the better your reporting.
Do you have a lot of freedom in choosing what topics and places you’re reporting about? How do you choose?
It’s a mixture of my ideas and those of my bosses. My series on Hungary, which you ask about in the next question, was initially my suggestion. Whereas it was my editors who suggested sending me to Catalonia last year. And of course, ultimately I do nothing without the agreement and input of the editors.
Your recent reporting has focused a lot on Hungary, particularly Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Why Hungary?
A small country like Hungary might not seem like a natural focus for my reporting. But what’s been happening there under Viktor Orban deserves great attention, because it shows how a consolidated democracy can be eroded within a very short space of time. At a time when many liberals fear what might happen if an authoritarian far-right leader came to power in the West, Viktor Orban in Hungary shows what is already possible. By challenging the independence of the judiciary, changing the voting system, and infringing on press freedom, he’s created a template for other illiberal Western leaders to follow in the future.
What is your primary goal when you’re writing a story? What kind of impact do you want to make with your work?
I hope most of my work either holds people to account, or shines a light on issues that readers didn’t previously know about, or provides a historical record of events that will allow future generations to better understand what we are doing right and wrong in the present. You can’t always do all or even any of these things. But they’re good goals to aim for.
How has social media changed your job? Do you think it’s important?
I became a professional journalist in 2010, when social media was already a big part of journalism. So it’s always been a feature of my work. It’s useful because stories break faster on Twitter than they do on news websites, so it’s a good way of keeping track of what’s going on in the world. It also helps you to connect to potential sources, to interact with readers, to promote your work, and to live-tweet about events you’re witnessing in the field. That said, it can be a time-waster, and some of the discussion on there is toxic. So these days I try to limit my time on Twitter and Facebook.
Verge is focused on informing young, student readers. Why do you think young people should take an interest in journalism, and more broadly, why is it important for them to stay informed?
If you don’t understand the political and economic forces that are affecting your life, you can’t make informed choices about how to lead your life. And to get the information that helps you to understand all this, you need to be reading and watching the work of professional journalists — people trained and paid to uncover that information.