Sieges, spies and shorthand – stories from a foreign correspondent

Patrick Kingsley has been The Guardian’s Egypt correspondent since January 2013. Patrick KingsleyPreviously, he was a feature writer for The Guardian and completed his NCTJ training at Lambeth College in 2011. Patrick was the winner of the new journalist of the year award at the British Journalism Awards in December 2013. Patrick is also the recipient of the Frontline Club Award for print journalism for his report ‘Killing in Cairo – the full story of the Republican Guards’ club shooting’.

In this blog, Patrick talks about his journalism training and how a shorthand note led to him being accused of being an Israeli spy…

What are the most important skills you learned from your NCTJ training?

Shorthand and media law are high on the list. I use shorthand all the time in Egypt and it saves me a lot of time – which is crucial when you’re on a tight deadline. The only danger is that to some Egyptians it looks a bit like Hebrew, which a few people have found very suspicious. One time, it led to me being called an Israeli spy, and detained by the army.

Media law obviously isn’t essential outside of the UK. But when I worked in London, I found the media law I learnt with NCTJ very valuable. Even if I couldn’t remember every last statute, I knew when I needed to be careful – both when writing an article, and when tweeting.

What has been your most challenging story to date?

In July I wrote a 5000-word article investigating the killing of 51 protesters on a single day in Cairo. It involved interviewing over 30 witnesses, and trying to piece together what happened from their testimonies. It was a tough challenge because it involved finding many witnesses in a short space of time, some of whom were not very keen to talk. It was also daunting because what I found contradicted what the Egyptian government and most Egyptian media had pretended had happened that day – and to write as much required going out on a limb.

What’s the craziest thing to happen to you, or that you have done as a young journalist?

One of the most frightening days came on 16 August 2013, when I was reporting on a besieged mosque in the middle of Cairo. While approaching it, my translator and I came under fire, so we hid in a nearby office. Then when the shooting stopped we were briefly detained by the police.

Once we finally got to the mosque, a mob – probably hired by the police – surrounded me and said I was a spy, before two of them essentially abducted me on a scooter. Those two duffed me up a bit, stole my phone and laptop, and drove me for what seemed like several miles. I don’t think I’ve ever been more frightened than on that scooter – I had no idea where we were going. Eventually I was handed over to another pair of bikers, who took me to another police station, where I was held for the afternoon before being released.

What advice do you have for journalism students who want to become investigative journalists?

I wouldn’t say I’m primarily an investigative journalist. That said, all journalism is to some extent investigative, and I have made some in-depth investigations I’m very proud of – such as the one I mentioned earlier about the protesters’ deaths. In that particular case, I found the most important thing was to try and talk to as many people as possible. The more people I spoke to, the more I understood, and the more leads people gave me. Even if someone couldn’t give me enlightening information themselves, they might introduce me to someone else who could. You don’t know who’s going to have the best insight, so you’ve just got to meet everyone. You have to be patient, and be prepared to put in the hard yards.