Beth Rigby (Social & Political Sciences 1994) is Sky News Political Editor. Previously a newspaper journalist for the Financial Times and The Times, Beth has become a key figure in explaining Brexit to the nation. She shares her story.
What was your first experience of Fitzwilliam?
The reason I applied to Fitz was I didn’t really know anyone who had been to Cambridge apart from my Dad, who had been to Fitz. He was a Lancastrian grammar school boy, post-war and won a scholarship and went to Fitz, when it was down opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum. For me, because it was quite a daunting prospect to go to Cambridge, Fitz felt like there was a connection and it wasn’t overtly intimidating. That was how I came to choose Fitz as a place to go. And then my experience there really bore that out, because it was a modern college, very down to earth.
It’s quite a culture shock going to Cambridge, or it was then, from a grammar school where you might know one or two people; I had one friend from school at Selwyn College – Sophie Rouse – who I’m still very good friends with now, so I felt quite alone when I went there. I had some other friends who I met there who had been to public schools and had lots of friends on campus.
Fitz was a really welcoming place and because it was a college that was a bit out of town, it wasn’t fancy and we really stuck together. I forged very strong friendships within the college unit and especially on the course, in SPS. I met three of my closest friends, Emma Mohamed, Eleanor Chambers and Pat Barkham on my course. And Carys Jones – now Carys Naylor – is still one of my best friends too, and we met on our corridor, I think it was E block. So I had this brilliant friendship group there at the beginning and it endured right the way through to my life now. It was just a very special place to be and the experience is still very much part of me via the friendships I made. I still see some of my university lecturers too.
Why did you choose Social Political Sciences?
I loved politics. I wasn’t very good at maths. There was PPE at Oxford, but I didn’t want to do economics, and then there was SPS at Cambridge. What I really wanted to study was politics, so there wasn’t another course that I was interested in. I wanted to do Social Political Science and that’s why I did it.
It has served you well.
The thing I found when I was an undergraduate in the first year was we were doing four different subjects; we had to do a different essay on a different subject every week. I learned to take lots of complicated information, absorb it, assimilate it and then distil it to make coherent arguments. These skills lend themselves perfectly to journalism. A newspaper article – and this applies even more to TV storytelling – is all about distilling down complexity. It was a rigorous training ground intellectually and academically and succeeding at Fitz gave me confidence in my own ability.
But also it opens up doors to you. An Oxbridge calling card opens opportunities to you professionally, opportunities I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t won that place. I went and taught English as a foreign language for a year, because I wanted a year out. Then I did some work experience with the Financial Times and I was offered a job. I spent 17 years at the FT. I did my NCTJ journalist training there – shorthand, law, court reporting – and then I became a financial journalist. I covered financial services and hedge funds and then I worked my way up. I was the retail correspondent, then the consumer industries editor. And, after I had my first child, in 2010 I came back and I moved to the lobby as the chief political correspondent. That was my transition. I did a very long apprenticeship to get into political journalism.
I was in the lobby for the Financial Times for five years and promoted to deputy political editor there. Then, after the 2015 general election, I moved to The Times as media editor because I wanted to move from quite a specialist newspaper to a Fleet Sheet broadsheet and test my muscles. I’d flourished at the FT, could I break out somewhere else? I loved working at The Times under the editor John Witherow. It was a lot of fun and fast-paced. I was very happy there but a few months into the job I was approached by Sky to join their political unit and I thought if I don’t do it now I might never do it. So I accepted the job, came to Sky and three years on I got the job as political editor.
Do you think there are comparisons in access and widening participation between elite universities and the media?
Getting a place at Cambridge gave me such privilege in terms of where you go from there. I don’t think I would have ever got that job at the Financial Times, or had the confidence to do it, had I not had my Oxbridge experience. That is why it’s so important to me and also why I really care about having good access for young people who are far less privileged than I was. So I really think Oxbridge can be transformative for an individual but also more broadly for our society because it would inject more social mobility and diversity into our judiciary, our government and industries such as the media where there remains a predominance of white, privately-educated and privileged men. I don’t need to tell you that the top echelons of our society are very weighted towards a certain group of people. I think that is changing, but everyone needs to do their bit. The journey is well established in terms of gender diversity and gender balance, but in terms of trying to widen the diversity of people from different backgrounds and different ethnicities there’s some way to go, not just in journalism, but also at elite universities and in other professions.
Who are your role models?
Some would say Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama, but my role models were much closer to my life. It was my mother, who died a few years ago. She had three children, she went back to work. She was a headteacher. She worked really hard and she really cared about what she did and was really proud of what she did. Then along the way, I had different women who had a big impact on me through my education and then my professional career. The teacher that inspired me to really love politics – Mrs Rodda. Then when I got to university there was Nicky Padfield. I was the women’s officer at Fitz and she really supported me in that. Helen Thompson, who was my politics lecturer and is now my friend. She inspired me and gave me a lot of confidence. When I went to the FT there was a really brilliant financial editor, Jane Fuller, who gave me a leg up. She was just formidable; she was a really small women, but packed a punch. And then into politics – there’s so many impressive women who just do a really good job and are decent people. For me, the role models were the people in my life that inspired me that I could touch, if you like.
What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
Sometimes when you’re younger you’re quite tough on yourself. I used to stew on what I couldn’t do, rather than focus on what I could do. Just believe in yourself and be kind to yourself and don’t be too tough on yourself. It’s OK to make mistakes. And be true to yourself. I still have an anxiety exam dream from Cambridge; you know the one when you’re about the walk into the exam hall to sit for you finals and you haven’t revised. Applying to one of the best universities in the world and winning a place there, you’re putting yourself under a lot of pressure to carry on succeeding. But I’d say to my younger self now: bank your wins and don’t over study your losses.