Barring school friends, contacts from Oxford can be some of the oldest in one’s life. At the time, it sometimes seems that those students who are pursuing a career in politics are the most assiduous at building up what is now called a “network”. However, contacts can prove just as useful for those aiming at a career in the media – especially when, as at Oxford, some of those fellow undergrads may go on to be at the heart of media stories themselves.
In 2005, the journalist Geordie Greig (St Peter's College, 1979) was dubbed “Britain’s best-connected man” It’s an attribute which seemed ideal for someone who had just become Editor of Tatler.
As a boy he’d never thought about his career, but when he graduated from Oxford, with an English degree, he realised that journalism was what he wanted to do. As he once explained to the Guardian, his father asked if he’d thought about banking. “And the Continental Illinois Bank in Chicago — the third biggest bank in the world — offered me a job starting on £15,000. And then the South East London and Kentish Mercury, based in Deptford, offered me a job at £2,500. And I said: ‘Dad, there's no choice.’ And he said: ‘You're so right!’ And I said: ‘It's Deptford!’”
He went on to edit both Tatler and then the London Evening Standard, and became Editorial Director of the group which publishes the Standard and the Independent newspapers. Then, last year, he took on the editorship of the Mail on Sunday.
This month, Geordie Greig gave, to the Press Gazette, his first interview since taking on the Mail on Sunday job. And on this issue of contacts, he is quite straightforward. “You use every connection you can,” he says, “to try and bring in the best things for the paper.”
It’s great to know that you can ring people you met at Oxford, with the likelihood that they’ll take your call. But the problem is that, sometimes, those connections can also prove uncomfortable. For as Geordie says, “news has a way of being a brute force which overrides connections and friendships. It is a tidal wave which generally no-one can stop.”
Earlier this year, the Mail on Sunday got in touch with actor Hugh Grant (New College, 1979) to ask him about the birth of his second child — something he had been keen not to publicise. Hugh Grant was one of the first people that Geordie Greig had met when he went up to Oxford.
“It was one of those things which was pretty testing at the time,” he admits. “Imagine – you ring up someone you’ve known for ages and say, listen, I’m going to do a story about [this].”
When people talk about Oxford connections, they rarely consider being put in that kind of position. But Geordie is one of the few who can really handle it. I met him briefly when I was at The Sunday Times and, on top of his journalistic skills, I can attest to his enormous likeability. And he underplays his own accomplishment when he says that “actually, as long as you’re straight, it’s fine.”
For in the media, your Oxford contacts can put you in a useful situation, or in a tricky spot. It’s how you handle them that makes all the difference.