History Careers – Journalism and beyond

A postgraduate History degree at Oxford helped Greg Neale change career


greg neale

After twenty years working as a newspaper journalist, in Liverpool, Hong Kong and in Fleet Street - including The TimesThe Guardian, The Financial Times, The Observer and then a lengthy stint as environment correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, Greg studied part-time and at night at Birkbeck College, London, and gained a first-class degree in History.  “My appetite for full-time study was whetted,” he recalls. “I decided to apply for a postgraduate course at Oxford, and was accepted by Pembroke College, to read for an MSt in Modern History. “I had no idea where it would take me, and at first I was rather concerned that I might be burning my boats in journalism,’’ he confesses,  "but it gave me time to think, to read and to enjoy living full-time in an academic environment.”


His decision paid off, however.  Hearing of his career change, a former colleague now at the BBC contacted Greg and asked him for advice on whether the Corporation’s publishing arm should launch a history magazine. Greg was later appointed as the founding editor of BBC History Magazine.  Within a year of his graduating from Oxford, the new magazine had become the best-selling title of its kind in Britain, and Greg went on to win two “Editor of the Year” awards from the British Society for Magazine Editors. “Without my exposure at Oxford to so many new ideas in historical studies, I don’t think I would have been able to give the magazine the direction I wanted, marrying up to date scholarship with good-quality journalism,” he says.   Greg went on to take his newly-honed skills to television, working as on-screen “resident historian” for BBC2’s flagship news and current affairs programme, Newsnight. “I recall Jeremy Paxman joking, ‘We need Greg on the programme - he knows when the Middle Ages were'!”  he recalls. “Meanwhile, the editor told me that as a historian, I should wear a moleskin suit, and never trim my eyebrows!” A stint on BBC4’s nightly news programme The World followed, and for his work in bringing history to new audiences, Greg was among a select group made Centenary Fellows of the Historical Association. 


Since then, Greg has used his new combination of skills editing several other magazines; working as oral historian and honorary Visiting Fellow at the University of York; teaching history and the history of journalism for City University and the University of the Arts, London, and co-authoring the history of Britain’s National Union of Journalists, as well as conducting public interviews at literary festivals and making films for the charity, the Media Society.  He is also a member of the Oxford History Faculty’s external advisory panel. His current projects include editing a book to mark Pembroke College’s forthcoming 400th anniversary, and he hopes to take a doctorate at some stage.  “Studying history - both at Birkbeck and at Oxford - helped me think afresh about my own profession,” he says, “so the topic is an aspect of the history of journalism that needs more examination - and more public awareness.”  Continuing education, he says, is important to staying alert to new opportunities.  “Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d taken a course at Goldsmiths, London, in field recording and the soundscape. It was fascinating, even if when, for one exercise, I was sitting by the Thames, headphones on, trying to record the underwater sounds of river traffic - to passers-by, I must have looked frankly bonkers. But it gave me lots of ideas about how to tell stories in new and different ways.” Similarly, teaching online during the pandemic has suggested new ways of working. 


Advice for new generations of Oxford historians

“Be brave, be prepared to take a few risks, be interested in fields outside your chosen specialisation. Be alert to changes, even if you are contemplating traditional career paths. While I was at Newsnight, I remember being asked to give a talk at a public history group meeting at Cambridge, where my subject was some research the BBC had done into what motivated public interest in history.  I’d assumed it would be a somewhat recondite evening with a dozen or so undergrads and postgrads.  Instead, I got there to find the talk had been moved to a large lecture theatre, full to the brim with dons as well as students. The organiser confessed she’d subtitled my talk - “How to have a best-seller”!  But the interesting thing was that the audience - all serious historians, many at the start of their career - were thinking of how they might work beyond the traditional fields of teaching and research, in public history, in print, broadcasting, online, in traditional media and beyond, using the transferable skills they were acquiring."