Rory Cellan-Jones in conversation

On 14 February at the Intellectual Forum, former BBC News technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones spoke with current MMLL students Aimee Jones and Asher Porter about how his undergraduate studies at Jesus served as a catalyst for a successful career in journalism.  

Rory spent 40 years at the BBC. He recently published Ruskin Park: Sylvia, Me and the BBC, a memoir about his experience uncovering long held secrets from his family history. This year, Rory documented his journey with rescue dog Sophie on Twitter/X with the trending hashtag #SophieFromRomania.

His talk at the IF was co-organised by the Jesus College Modern & Medieval Languages and Linguistics Society and hosted by Society co-presidents and current Jesus students Aimee and Asher. They spoke with Rory before the event about his memories of Jesus and his advice for students hoping to pursue a career in journalism. 

What did you study at Cambridge?

I arrived here in 1977 to do a degree in Modern and Medieval Languages. My languages were French and German, which were the popular languages back then.

Why did you choose Jesus College?

Here’s the sordid truth: I didn’t choose Jesus. I was brought up by my mum in a flat in South London and luckily got a scholarship to this public school, Dulwich College, which sent an awful lot of people to Oxbridge. I’m trying to remember if they even gave me the choice between Oxford or Cambridge; they basically said, “Right, you’re going to Jesus”.

Where in College did you live during your time here?

I started on K staircase, K18. I loved the feel of it; I was in love with medieval, ancient Cambridge. I thought it was incredibly romantic. It was quite a sort of ‘bare bones’ room with a bathroom that everyone shared down on the ground floor and five very jolly friends who were in their third year and were chemists. What I chiefly remember – they had this croquet mallet, because they had this game of chasing the cockroaches. They would say, "Got another five of them today!” That’s my main memory of the accommodation in the first year.

Then I was out for the second year in New Square in a room in a house with an elderly couple. There was no fridge or anything like that, and I remember that winter being incredibly cold and storing my milk on the windowsill and having to thaw it out when I brought it in. My other memory is of trying to cook a fondue for two Swiss language students on my gas ring. I don’t think it went well! 

What are your best memories from your undergraduate years at Jesus? 

The thing to remember is that I arrived in October 1977 in a Cambridge that was still only just going co-ed. Jesus was an all-male College. I had been on this brilliant course in West Berlin for six months, so I arrived with lots of friends doing languages in other Colleges. Jesus stuck me as very 'boaty', very male, and so I spent a lot of time outside of College. It wasn’t until I came back from my year abroad in Paris that I really began to fall in love with the College. While I was away, the first women had arrived and the whole place was completely transformed. It became a lot more fun then. I remember going to the May Ball and I think Elvis Costello sang, so that’s a good memory.

Did you do anything during your time at Cambridge that influenced your future career path? 

The first couple of years, I was incredibly intimidated by the idea of getting into student journalism. I really wanted to do it, but I thought everybody would be incredibly smart. Then I went to Paris and came back and I was older, and I realised actually that the people who do this are not necessarily incredibly smart—some of them are—but they’re just very determined. I got determined and I got in. I went to a meeting in Jesus with all these people trying to pretend they were Woodward and Bernstein and I realised I could do this. And the rest is history as they say.

Do you have any advice for students hoping to pursue a career in journalism?

The huge difference between now and then is that then, to make a television programme, you needed to own a television studio and you had to be a tycoon. Now anybody can do it. My advice is just to do it. Find out what interests you, start a YouTube channel, TikTok, promote your wares, and show what you can do. 

Watch the event recording on YouTube.