Mary Hockaday became Master of Trinity Hall in 2022Wikimedia Commons

Mary Hockaday became master of Trinity Hall after a long and distinguished career in journalism. Having been head of the BBC Multimedia Newsroom, and controller of BBC World Service English, she is the first female master in the college’s 670-year history.

Born in Oxford, she laughs as she recalls that she “ran away to Cambridge” for her undergraduate degree in English. She tells me she was drawn by the Cambridge tripos, which was broader than Oxford’s alternative, giving her the opportunity to follow her interests. Having been a “bookworm from an early age”, English was the obvious choice – but she paid little thought to what she wanted to do beyond that. It was an opportunity to do a postgraduate course in journalism in the US that set her on her path.

“Journalism is very different from reading and writing about books, because journalism is about people”, Mary tells me, though that was not to say her English degree did not help: “One of the things that an English degree can give you if you read a lot, and read broadly, is all these windows on different worlds and different people in different ages”. She tells me that her studies gave her “a sense of the richness of humanity and life”, something that was invaluable in journalism. “In the end, you’re reporting on a world where things happen for good or ill and people are complicated.”

She assures me, like many at this paper will already know, that the world of journalism wasn’t – and isn’t – easy to break into. “Like many people who want to go into journalism, it took me a while to get going”.

She recalls stories of banging on doors, doing “unpaid work” for a political magazine, and writing film reviews, before she found her first paid role: a subeditor for a magazine about computer software. “I knew little about computer software and, frankly, cared even less”, she tells me, smiling. She later landed a nine-month contract with BBC Bristol as a researcher, and then got a traineeship at the BBC World Service – “and then I was really on my way”, she says proudly.

“I never had an answer to that question, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’”

It was an exciting time to be a journalist. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and she recalls being on a “sort of restless adventure”, leaving the BBC to go to Prague to be a freelance reporter on post-communism. “It was incredible. I was a witness to history.”

I wonder if she’d ever imagined the sort of career she was headed towards, to which she laughs and shakes her head. “I was never anybody”, she tells me. “I never had an answer to that question, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’, never.”

It was her “internal drive” and desire to make a difference that drove her – a kind of “impulse to do different things to keep learning, keep going and grow”. As an undergraduate, she never could have imagined being a college’s master. “I was sort of, theoretically, against big institutions [as a student]”, she tells me. Now, she’s come to “believe deeply that strong institutions – strong independent institutions – are an incredibly precious part of any society” as long as they “keep evolving” and “stay true to their purpose.”

Going back to her career in the BBC, I ask her what it was like the first time she stepped into the BBC World Service newsroom. “Scary. Exciting”, she replies. “​​Full of men, and some women”. She recalls: “tape recording machines with reel to reel tape and razor blades to cut the tape [...] because that’s how you edited audio in those days”.

What was it like being a woman in journalism at that time? It was “interesting”, she says.

“I was absolutely not the only woman ... we were all very determined and just getting on with it”. She tells me how she had “great colleagues” all round, both male and female, but despite this, she did sometimes have to “fight to make sure that I was taken seriously”, which she did quietly, but firmly.

A series of female role models within her own family had taught her: “with determination and hard work, if you don’t give up, we were just as good as anybody else”. It’s that attitude that got her through the tougher times, she says; “work well and prevail.”

“Sometimes, as I walked towards the tube, I would cry because of something I’d seen that day”

“It’s very different now”, Mary insists positively. “There are brilliant women all over journalism, doing everything from the most senior Editor jobs to being foreign correspondents, from camerawomen to great producers. It’s really changed.”

When I ask what Mary thinks sums up journalism, it’s that it is a “privilege”: “You’re witnessing something … you’re in the thick of things”. While she fears it can make journalists appear “ghoulish”, she insists there’s something exciting about being among “people who’ve just been caught up in a terrible event and talking to them.”

It’s not always easy. She recalls especially vivid moments – the lead up to the Iraq war, the death of Nelson Mandela; but particularly the day of the 9/11 attacks.

She was coming back from holiday in Greece, and headed straight into the office. Mary explains that, at these times: “you draw on your skills, your expertise, your experience – that’s what everyone around you is doing”. It’s a strange feeling, she tells me. You have to “apply professional judgement”, at the same time as “processing, as a human being [the], scale and horror of what is happening”. The way you get through it “is the sense of shared purpose, focused talent, coming together as a team” and “commitment to doing a great job for everyone [...] Nothing compares to that.”

But detaching from the human tragedy wasn’t always easy. She tells me about times reporting on “awful things happening in Syria”, where she would work on stories into the evening before letting herself recognise the extent of the human tragedy. “Sometimes, as I walked towards the tube, I would cry because of something I’d seen that day”. She didn’t mind showing emotion, she says: “It was almost a reminder: ‘I’m still acting like a human’. And the next day, I’d go in and be a professional journalist again.”

How has the media changed since her early years in the profession? “Oh, gosh!” she laughs. She tells me that while “in a way, the fundamentals haven’t changed”, the main change has been the rise of social and digital media.

“The pace and volume of digital and social media has brought new opportunities but also new challenges”. Although there’s always been propaganda, she sees one of the central challenges as the ease with which “manipulated or fake news can shoot around the world in seconds”. It’s also become more important to cultivate trust with audiences, Mary feels: “There are so many different distractions and new news sources”, so you have to “keep earning that trust”. But while people do enjoy “crazy breadth and diversity”, she believes that they still believe in institutions like the BBC.


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“People do know that it matters to be able to trust your news sources, and that’s very reassuring.”

Why did you take the job of master at Trinity Hall?

I really believe in Cambridge and the collegiate university. I wanted a change and it’s an incredible opportunity to bring skills and experience from a long-ish career at the BBC, to support an institution which has been one of the most important things in the world; which is educating next generations; supporting world class research; and doing so with a sense of tradition, but an eye on the future and an independent spirit.

What is your favourite part about the college?

One of the things I love about Trinity Hall as an environment – as a physical environment – is coming in through the gates from the court, and then going through the passage, and emerging and it all opens out; the gardens, the sky, the huge Beech tree. If I think about my favourite part of the community of Trinity Hall, which in many ways is more important in the building, I absolutely could not choose between wonderful students, brilliant fellows and incredible staff.

The best and worst thing about being a head of college?

Everything I thought would be wonderful about this role, is wonderful and is more wonderful. And then there are one or two things which I thought might be challenging. The thing that is incredible is engaging with fabulous people all the time. I really love getting to know students. It’s a privilege to talk to our fellows across a full range of research and disciplines and be a part of helping support everybody do the best they can in whatever way – as well as interacting with people all over Cambridge and beyond the wider community. I suppose I find it challenging because I come from a career in journalism, in news, working in fast-paced newsrooms. So, I’m learning patience. The rhythm of decision making in Cambridge is considerably slower, for good reason. So, occasionally, that’s frustrating because I’m learning to embrace a different pace.

If you had to be the master of another college, which would you choose?

If I had to choose, I think my mother’s college – so I’d go to Girton.

What would you say to your successor in this role?

They’re really lucky – it’s the most brilliant college with a wonderful community. The wonderful things will be more wonderful than you can imagine, but the challenges and frustrating things will be even more so than you can expect!

Also – there’s only so much change a college is capable and should go through in one master’s tenure – so be selective.