Isabel Oakeshott (BA 1996)

Isabel Oakeshott (BA 1996) is a political commentator for BBC television and radio as well as Sky News. In 2012, she won Political Journalist of the Year at the UK Press Awards. She is currently writing an unauthorised biography of Prime Minister David Cameron.

Isabel Oakeshott

When I was 12, I remember being asked by a teacher what I thought I would be doing in ten years’ time. ‘I’ll be a reporter on a local newspaper,’ I replied. I had a vivid image of myself looking grown up and business-like in an electric blue suit. It was the 1980s, after all.

In the years that followed, I was never particularly focused on becoming a journalist, though I did write for pleasure, mostly a lot of rubbish in teenage diaries. At Bristol, where I studied History, I wrote a few features for the student newspaper Epigram.

After I graduated, I had no idea what I was going to do, but a grim spell working at a call centre in Temple Meads and living in a bedsit with a brown and orange kitchen and an electricity meter that had to be fed 50ps soon concentrated my mind.

I applied for work experience on a local newspaper in Scotland and, by Christmas, my childhood prediction had come true, right down to the blue skirt and jacket – though thankfully there were never any shoulder pads involved.

I started at the bottom and I was busking it. I had no qualification in journalism and the pay was terrible – but boy was it fun! I loved it. Out and about all day, talking to interesting people, from lottery winners to victims of crime, accidents or tragedies; rich and poor; anonymous and famous. Every day brought something different. I was having so much fun that I almost had to be persuaded to take holiday. I had found my niche.

I was blissfully unaware that becoming a newspaper journalist in the late 1990s was like deciding to become a coal miner in 1983. The internet was just arriving – and the newspaper industry was about to enter a long, agonising decline.

In the decade that followed, I worked my way up, from local, to evening, to national newspapers. I had staff jobs on the Daily Record, the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Mail, theLondon Evening Standard, and finally the Sunday Times. It was never boring, but it was tough. The hours were gruelling, the demands relentless, tasks were often unreasonable and getting great stories against all odds went unthanked. Sometimes, knocking on doors and chasing criminals and drug addicts on the toughest council estates in Scotland, it was downright dangerous. In those "pre-Leveson" days some of what went on in newsrooms was also unethical, though not illegal. I had dark days but there were always thrills around the corner and I never lost the buzz of seeing my name on the front page.

Yet I could not have gone on ‘door knocking’ forever. It was too exhausting, too unpredictable, and too badly paid. I doubt I would have stuck with newspapers if I hadn't discovered political journalism. It happened by chance.

I was a general reporter on the Daily Mail in Scotland and a job came up on the political team. Sifting through CVs, the editor spotted that I had a good academic record, including a top degree from Bristol. He told me I must be smart enough to give it a go. It was the only time in my career that having a First paid off.

I knew nothing about politics. I'm ashamed to say that I had to research what each of the main parties stood for. But I fancied a bloke in the lobby at Holyrood, and I was desperate to get out of being sent the length and breadth of Scotland knocking doors. I grabbed my chance. I loved it. Soon I wanted to write about politics on a bigger stage.

I have now been a member of the Westminster lobby for eight years. I have a tiny office in the House of Commons, and spend my days roaming the corridors of power and the Westminster cafés, bars and restaurants, talking to politicians, spin doctors and party aides. It's an absolute privilege but I have to come up with the goods: ideally a front page story for the Sunday Times every week, and several others besides.

Against the backdrop of falling sales across the newspaper industry, I have also had to diversity. I am now a regular political commentator on TV and radio, an occasional public speaker, and co-author of two non-fiction books.

In 2014, I will be embarking on my biggest professional challenge yet: an unauthorised biography of Prime Minister David Cameron.

To students considering a career in journalism today, I say, forget it. If you don't truly love to write, aren't pushy, competitive, thick skinned - and able to be charming with it – you won't make it. If you want to make big money quickly, and aren't prepared to take a load of sh** as you claw your way up, it's not for you.

If none of that puts you off, then I say go for it. You'll find it one of the best jobs in the world.