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Rory Cellan-Jones: ‘I now earn more in a few days than I did during 40 years at the BBC’

Sunday, 10th December 2023. Angela Wintle, The Telegraph

Fame & Fortune: Former journalist on national newsrooms, Parkinson’s disease and disastrous pension schemes

Rory Cellan-Jones, 65, was a BBC journalist for 40 years and appointed technology correspondent in 2007. He left the BBC in 2021 and is now a technology consultant and writer.

He has written three books, including Always On (2001) which documented his experiences reporting on the smartphone era. He has also investigated the role technology can play in improving Parkinson’s disease, having been diagnosed with the condition in 2019.

Together with Jeremy Paxman, and others, he appears on Movers and Shakers, a podcast about living with the condition. He lives in west London with his wife, the economist Professor Dame Diane Coyle. They have two grown-up children.

Did you have a good financial start in life?

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but we had a really fragile financial situation. My mother, as a single parent twice over for about 30 years, struggled to get by, especially as she was determined to give me a good education. Even in retirement she never lost that insecurity, despite being comfortably off by then.

When I took out a car loan to buy the Ford Escort I needed for my first job, she was horrified, writing to her sister that I had “fallen into the hands of usurers and moneylenders”. OK, it was the Midland Bank, but they were not much better than that. And despite being a fan of Margaret Thatcher, she was very suspicious of the council housing sell-off and refused to pay £5,000 for our flat, dying a Southwark council tenant.

How did your mother pay for your private education?

She went back to work at the BBC as a director’s assistant, after just about managing to find a childminder in a council flat where she left me every day. She also received maintenance payments from my father’s family, although not without a legal battle.

There was a terrible period where she wasn’t certain she could meet the £90 a term needed to keep me at Dulwich College – everything depended on me getting a scholarship at 11 which, thankfully, I did.

What was your first foray into broadcasting?

With my Cambridge finals fast approaching, I applied for one of the many training schemes offering a quick route into national newspapers or broadcasting. I got through to the final round of the BBC training scheme and was summoned for an interview.

After rigorous questioning, the former head of Television News barked: “Why no drama experience – given your father?” He had obviously looked at my distinctive surname and assumed that my father, Jim Cellan-Jones, then a freelance drama director, had been a major influence on my life. Blushing, I had to explain that I had never met him. The BBC executive, almost as embarrassed as I was, changed the subject and I didn’t get selected.

What was your first job in broadcasting?

I wrote to the BBC and said: “Is there anything else I can do?” They replied: “Write to every regional newsroom and see if they’ve got anything.”

I did and BBC Leeds wrote back saying they were looking for a researcher on a short-term contract to work on a new current affairs series, Look North. My starting salary was £4,726, but it was a brilliant learning experience.

It was a good old-fashioned newsroom, wreathed in cigarette smoke. The news editor used to go for a pint at lunchtime and bring a pint into the gallery during the programme.

Where did you go next?

After 18 months, I successfully applied for a job as a sub-editor in the London TV newsroom. At first it was deadly dull and mainly involved writing elegant intros for the likes of John Humphrys, which the newsreaders would rewrite. But then I wangled a transfer to the production team of Newsnight, which was much more fun. I worked with John Simpson on various stories and did a big investigation into the Brighton bomber. By the time I left, my salary had risen to £11,000.

What has been your biggest professional gamble?

I wanted to be a reporter, not a producer, so at the age of 28 I applied for a vacancy on Wales Today, the BBC evening news programme for Wales.

I got the job but that meant leaving the staff and the pension scheme, and going on contract. Also, I’d just bought a flat in Balham with a £30,000 mortgage. It was a bit of a risk, but it was made clear to me that I’d have to start outside London and then try to fight my way back. 

What have been your best and worst investments?

When I joined BBC Wales, I sold my £32,000 flat in Balham for £54,000 and bought a four-bedroom house in Cardiff for £50,000, which I rented out to BBC colleagues.

Four years later, I sold it for £80,000, massively benefiting from the 1980s housing boom. However, my next-door neighbour was an Allied Dunbar salesman and he sold me a pension mortgage which turned out to be a disaster. I ended up with three endowment policies – and we know how disastrous they turned out to be.

What was your big career break?

After working as a business correspondent in London, the BBC decided, in 2000, to call me internet correspondent. Three months later the dotcom bubble burst, and the BBC said: “Right, the internet is over. You can go back to being a business correspondent.” But, with the rise of social media, I kept on doing technology and business stories, and then, in 2007, came my big break, when I was appointed technology correspondent.

It was a massively exciting time because the first story I covered was Steve Jobs unveiling the iPhone. Then along came the smartphone revolution, apps, tablets and AI. We were running to keep up.

Were you satisfied with your pay at the BBC?

Yes, at the end. Late into my time there, the BBC started making people editors, basically to give them a big whack up in pay. It never happened to me.

I thought I was very well paid on my five-figure salary, although my wife overtook me many years ago. Just to put it into perspective, I do a few days’ media training a month with two different companies, and they pay the equivalent of my old BBC income.

Why did you leave the BBC?

It wasn’t a difficult decision because in 2021, they moved my job to Glasgow. Actually, it was good for me because I was 63 by then and working as a BBC correspondent is all consuming.

Also, two years previously I had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, although our reaction, as a family, was a bit “whatever” because being diagnosed with potentially life-threatening ocular melanoma in 2005 was much more frightening.

Is writing financially rewarding?

Nearly all books lose money. My first, about the dotcom bubble, was published on September 9, 2001, which proved to be bad timing given that 9/11 happened two days later. I received a £4,000 advance. I still get a statement each year telling me how much I owe back.

I think my latest book will earn its advance back, but, again, it was a small advance. One newspaper voted it book of the week, but, unbelievably, that doesn’t mean it gets shelf space in Waterstones. My publishers and I are banging our heads against the wall.

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