In this latest episode of our “Second Lives” podcast series, JONATHAN HOLLOW sits down with ROZINA BREEN, the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Rozina candidly shares her journey from a working-class background to leading a not-for-profit newsroom, reflecting on the choices, challenges, and resilience that shaped her highly successful career path — through the BBC to her current role.
Together, they talk through the benefits of investigative journalism from a not-for-profit space, and Rozina’s mission to spark change and expose injustice.
Rozina’s journey and travels, resilience, and the choices she made unfold, providing a glimpse into the intricate balance of family, work, and risk-taking mid-career.
TEBI would like to thank the London-based financial planning firm Mulberry Bow for collaborating with us on this series. Mulberry Bow are giving to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism as their 2023 philanthropy of the year.
As well as Spotify, you’ll find The TEBI Podcast on all the major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Listen Notes, PlayerFM and Podbean.
Jonathan Hollow: Rozina, since 2022, you’ve been the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Listeners might be intrigued to learn that it’s not-for-profit. Why do you need this kind of platform to pursue investigative journalism?
Rozina Breen: It’s a good, and complex, question, I suppose, having come from a career that was largely at the BBC, which is a publicly funded organisation by the license fee, to a newsroom or an organisation that is funded largely by foundations and individual giving; and I think there is a need for many newsrooms in the space. The need for deep investigations that take time, that aren’t influenced by commercial pressures or time pressures or getting a story out, is so important. My first senior leadership role in news was as Head of News at 5 Live, and I started during the week of the EU referendum. And since then, we have had a ferocious, angry daily news agenda.
Jonathan Hollow: And you’ve chosen, I think, five overarching themes to make a distinctive contribution and work in areas where you know you’re complimenting what else is going on in the industry. What are those five themes?
Rozina Breen: I inherited a brilliant portfolio from my predecessor, Rachel Oldroyd, who was in the post for eight years as CEO, and put together a really impressive set of what we call “verticals”. So essentially, those are topic areas – and they currently cover: big tech, global health, the environment, enablers (which includes the flow of dirty money through London) and our Bureau local team. And the focus for our Bureau local team at the moment includes justice – so we have some seed funding to look at ways of working with lawyers on cases that illustrate the need for systemic change in the legal system. We have launched a pilot this year, which is exploring how we can equip communities to essentially decide on what investigations to do, how to tell the story, which voices to use. Our recent exposé of Thurrock Council’s misspending of hundreds and thousands, indeed, millions, of pounds on investments that are questionable, typified the absolute need for that.
Jonathan Hollow: And within those areas, there are still loads of choices you could make. So do you have a process for narrowing down which stories you think it’s right for you to cover?
Rozina Breen: We always think about our impact before signing off any commission. Our mandate is to spark change. So, our tagline is “exposing injustice, sparking change” and we are a mission-driven organisation.
So, every story that we do has a commissioning process which involves: what is the expected impact of any one investigation? So, for example, where can we work with stakeholders who are also pushing for a fairer or better outcome? Where can we help policymakers understand the need? What other media organisations could pick up our story in country in order to sort of push on the back of the investigations that we have done?
Jonathan Hollow: Is there a story that you’ve worked on with your journalists since you started at the Bureau that sums up what really makes you proud of the Bureau’s work?
Rozina Breen: Every story that the team does makes me proud in different ways, and I think there is something pretty special and magical about belonging to a non-profit newsroom. But I suppose some recent examples come from our big tech team, who recently delivered an investigation about TikTok moderators in Colombia: low-paid and exposed to awful content. As a result of their investigation, Teleperformance, which is the subcontractor for TikTok in that region was investigated, and the labour ministry in Colombia also decided to investigate. So that’s a good outcome for us and illustrates perfectly what our aims are, in terms of where we want our investigations to go and how we want them to land, and what we want to happen on the back of them.
Jonathan Hollow: I’d like to talk a little bit about you and then we’ll come back more to the the Bureau later on. I’m interested in often finding that people’s attitudes to taking career risks are shaped by their earliest years. So can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up and what your school and studies were like?
Rozina Breen: I suppose I feel privileged that I was raised by a strong woman who had strong ethics, was aspirational for us, really determined. And also on the back of that, I don’t take anything for granted. I was born in North London in a leafy suburb to working class parents. My parents were Tanzanian. My grandmother is from Zanzibar, so my dad had a family business out there and my parents had met out there before emigrating to the UK. I spent some of my childhood in Dar es Salaam between the ages of three and eight. My parents separated when I was quite young, around the age of six. So eventually we ended up living with my mum in London, from the age of about eight.
A slightly circuitous story as to how we got there: we essentially were sent to live with our grandparents in Brighton after leaving East Africa and ran away to be with our mum. We went to a comprehensive, I was on free school meals, and every day feels a privilege. I feel lucky to represent, I suppose, people like me – whether it’s class, ethnicity, gender – to be able to let people know that, if I can do it, they can do it too.
After school, I took a gap year and went traveling. I spent half the year in India, traveling around India. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to do that solo alone today, but I did it back then.
Jonathan Hollow: It sounds like from what you say that your mum always wanted to encourage aspiration and presumably independence, if she was keen on you going away to India on your own for a year. Is that right, that she would have seen this as a natural path for you?
Rozina Breen: I think she was highly nervous of me going to India on my own, but, you know, at age 18, 19… those are difficult conversations, aren’t they! And I would say that she was never specific about what she wanted me to do. And I feel the privilege of that, really. She didn’t try and drive me down certain career pathways. She was very open to the arts, which I think was quite unusual, perhaps, from a sort of community point of view; and ultimately wanted us – I have a brother and sister – ultimately wanted us to feel fulfilled and happy, also to be able to pay our own way. She always encouraged us to try our best and to feel fulfilled, and to achieve our potential wherever that may lie. So I felt very emboldened by her.
Jonathan Hollow: So what was your journey from that sense of encouragement into journalism?
Rozina Breen: I then went to university in Aberystwyth, which is part of University College of Wales, and had three wonderful years there studying English and Drama. And also, quite importantly for me, was being by the sea. I’d spent formative part of my childhood in Dar es Salaam growing up by the sea; and so that was always very special to me, and the campus, and the feel at Aberystwyth was perfect. It’s exactly what I was looking for and I made great friendships.
I was at the point of thinking, what next? I failed to get into journalism school at Cardiff. I wasn’t ready. And, you know, there were far better candidates than me. But I had seen a Master’s course advertised. It was a new Master’s course at Leeds University. So I moved to Leeds for the year-long Master’s. I had a ball, loved the city. Got a foot in the door through my local radio station, BBC Radio Leeds, working on a casual basis as a radio production assistant – which, essentially in local radio, means everything and anything: delivering brilliant local journalism, learning the ropes. And then it was just a series of career moves, I suppose.
After a year and a half there, I applied to be a researcher in news and current affairs radio – which was largely Radio 4 current affairs, and some 5 Live current affairs, and some TV current affairs, and thoroughly enjoyed my time. I think feeling empowered and enabled to be able to bring myself to that role to learn and to, again, develop really respectful, key friendships in life.
So, I’ve learned to sort of lean in to what makes you feel like you will thrive; to take career choices that will help one grow, and also I suppose to walk around the barriers in terms of geography because I’ve moved from north to south, south to north, and vice versa. And there have been challenges there, especially when you start families. I feel I’ve had a rich and varied career so far, and feel lucky from where I’ve started that I am where I am. But I also recognise the value of what my history brings to me.
Jonathan Hollow: So it sounds like you’re obviously quite adventurous, in many ways. So, how have you balanced out, in your working life, a sense of safety against a sense of taking risks or having new adventures?
Rozina Breen: I wouldn’t describe myself as adventurous. If I look back and think if I had my time again, I would spend some time working abroad, maybe think about self-development much earlier on in my career, take more risks earlier on in my career. I’d say I’m a slow burn, in that it takes time to develop the confidence and the courage to do things, and also it helps having people around you who know you well, who you can take advice from, and who can really interrogate and question your decision making.
I use the word lucky a lot. And I do feel lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to go for jobs and to see parts of the world and to really understand different platforms. I’ve gone for things where I felt excited by them or wanted to be challenged by them, or felt that I could bring a lot to that role. And sometimes it’s, you know, being encouraged to go for roles where I’ve maybe discounted myself, but then had the extra boost of confidence to go for it based on a tap on the shoulder or a question from another leader or manager to go for it.
Jonathan Hollow: You made a big change – I think you were in your early fifties when you made the move to the Bureau; and obviously you moved from the BBC, which is a very safe, large organisation, to lower pay and a riskier funding environment. So talk to me about what you weighed up at that point, and the kind of conversations you had – and with whom – to make that decision.
Rozina Breen: I suppose there are a couple of things at play.
One is, as a mother and wife, there is a lot to carry for the family and also wanting to carry a lot for oneself as well and to feel enlivened, and to feel like you’re thriving and being the best that you can be. And I don’t think they’re necessarily competing – I think they can be compatible, but it takes a lot of discussion and – I have to say – a lot of understanding of who I am and what drives me from my husband and kids. They want me to be happy and feel fulfilled and to be doing great work. And so, throughout my decision making during my career, when I’ve had a family, they have been involved in the conversations.
Probably two or three jobs ago, I launched a digital hub for the World Service, which required working in London, Monday to Thursday. And at that point, the kids were teenagers and I said to them: I’d love to take this opportunity. I’ve got two boys and a girl. I wanted to show my boys that actually dads can be in charge at home; I wanted to show my daughter that women can be aspirational in the workplace; and that, actually, walk around the barriers and make things work. But I always said to them, I would always be home for school report days, sports days, anything that they needed me for. And ultimately, if it wasn’t working, I would give the job up and find something else.
And it was a promise to them that it had to work for the family. And so in this case, they’re all young adults now – so it’s a slightly different scenario, but there were quite a lot of, I would say, in-depth conversations with my husband, who is more risk-averse and really wanted me to interrogate the pros and cons of moving from a much more securely funded organisation – albeit with a sort of license fee caveat – to something that wasn’t as well-funded, and a lower salary, and so on.
And I loved my previous job, but I was ready for the next stretch and I think you have to put yourself out there and feel the discomfort at times.
Jonathan Hollow: And when you made that decision, or as part of making that decision, did you have to think ahead in a new way about money, pensions and so on? Did it sort of change your kind of money planning horizon?
Rozina Breen: Yeah, definitely. There are points at which, in my old job, I might’ve thought, “Well, you know, we can do X, Y, and Z” – and now, we can maybe just do X. But that’s fine because, as I say, purpose and work is so much of one’s life that the pleasure and reward of that makes up for it. I hope I’m not sort of seeing it through rose-tinted glasses. It’s sometimes difficult decisions, but I’m lucky enough to be able to make those decisions. As I say, I moved from one pension pot that was more generous than the non-profit pension pot; and I’ve slightly turned a blind eye to that. I really need to lean in, especially if we think about women and pensions, but there was a bit of bravery that I needed to do and take, and then park something in order to come back to it.
I suppose, maybe I like to think it’s my working class background. My husband is from a working class Irish background, so we learn to adapt, and to spend differently, or to save differently, or to say to the kids that actually more self-help is needed now because we can’t necessarily do everything for them all of the time.
Jonathan Hollow: So let’s talk about how it’s developed you as a person to move from being a senior leader but in a very large organisation to being the executive leader in a small organisation. What has that been like for your personal development?
Rozina Breen: There is no point feeling or being safe. If you want to achieve, you have to stretch in order to grow. And so it was this sort of very much fear, excitement approach that drove me and, ultimately, drawing on some really quick key tools, I suppose, in terms of having a gang around you. And these are trusted people who you can lean into, and ask questions of, and advice from, counsel. People who can really interrogate because they know you, and to know that you’re not in it on your own. Because leadership is lonely at the top. You can’t share everything with everybody all of the time. And so having that gang of peers or people above you: using the board well, using your peers outside of the organisation well, in order to sort of share and learn and grow has been great. And ultimately, I think also I valued being more of my authentic self and leading in a way that I feel is good and fair and equitable and authentic, hopefully, and allowing teams to see some of that vulnerability can be a powerful thing because we don’t have all of the answers, all of the time. And there is a saying that you want your team to be better than you. And I think that’s absolutely true.
Jonathan Hollow: A couple of words that you’ve used a lot in relation to your work at the Bureau are purpose and impact. Can you just say a little bit more about how you lead your journalists and colleagues towards those and what they mean to you?
Rozina Breen: I’m lucky in that purpose and impact are part of the soul of the Bureau since well before my time – indeed, from the time that one of our co-founders Elaine Potter, who was a pioneering journalist at the Sunday Times, brought in spirit and soul and thinking. So the Bureau’s very birth came from mission and purpose, and everybody who joins it seems to sort of have this magical quality around purpose and mission. We talk about it all the time. We have a brilliant impact editor, Miriam Wells, who has sort of transformed our thinking around impact and what we can achieve through our public interest investigations. So, it’s the soul of the organisation. People join the organisation because they feel really aligned to our mission and purpose, and it’s in our daily narrative – whether that’s commissioning, telling of the story, long tail of the story; you have a sort of fierce courage and spirit that you’re kind of fighting against the grain or the wave. And that’s what makes you stronger and more determined to do brilliant stuff.
Jonathan Hollow: You are passionate about both being a female leader and developing female leaders. Do you have a take on the strengths of women as leaders?
Rozina Breen: It’s a good question and also a complex one because it’s also about style and what you bring to the role; and you can have brilliant female leaders, you can have bad female leaders, you can have great male bosses and bad male bosses, and everything in between. So it’s a sort of more nuanced context. It’s probably about a human approach, which brings sort of understanding, empathy. I think where the gender issue comes in is where women will tend to more discount themselves from opportunity compared to men, because there is a stat that, if you’re looking at a job, and you see ten competencies – for a woman, you’ll have to feel that you are fulfilling eight or nine or ten out of those ten competencies, whereas for a man, it’s fewer. I’m keen to lend a hand up where there is discounting going on and to help everybody, especially from underrepresented or marginalised groups, to know that they can achieve and that we especially need those groups to come forward if we want our journalism to be relevant.
The sort of diversity of – not just UK, but global – audiences is impressive, phenomenal, an opportunity for us. But if our newsroom doesn’t look the same as society is, or we don’t open the door for more talent to come through the door, and if people don’t see people like themselves in an organisation or indeed at the top; they will naturally discount themselves from that industry or those positions. So it matters. And I think I’ve been really lucky to have bosses who have hired me, not in their own mould.
Jonathan Hollow: Have you come across women mentors, maybe not in your direct line management chain, who have inspired you?
Rozina Breen: Yeah, I’ve got a load of women who inspire me. I suppose for me a pivotal point was in 2015 when I applied for the BBC News Women in Leadership programme. That was run by an amazing woman, Katie Lloyd, who was then Director of Development at BBC News and launched a programme to get more women – or at least to open the doors to more women – securing higher-grade jobs at BBC News and had very clear targets for that program. So I applied, and was lucky enough to be on the cohort of … I think it was 14 to 16 women. And that became a sort of gang of women who would push each other, endorse each other, give each other space in the room to talk through challenges, opportunities, and so on. And actually, there are so many next-generation women and next-generation women coming through the pipeline.
Jonathan Hollow: Finally, if people want to access the journalism from the Bureau or they want to support the Bureau’s work, tell us about how they can do those two things.
Rozina Breen: If they search for TBIJ or the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, they’ll get to our website. We’re a slightly pre-design site at the moment, but they can access our work on that site. And also, we rely increasingly on individual giving. You could subscribe to our newsletter, donate monthly if you’re able to – anything from a fiver upwards monthly is also very welcome.
ABOUT JONATHAN HOLLOW
JONATHAN HOLLOW worked for the UK Government’s Money and Pensions Service and is a writer and commentator on consumer education and protection. He is the co-author, with Robin Powell, of the award-winning book How to Fund the Life You Want, which is published by Bloomsbury.
ALSO IN THIS SERIES
JOHN TREHARNE on how his sports career opened the door to a life of entrepreneurship as founder of two successful businesses, including Gym Group
HÉCTOR GARCÍA on the concept of ikigai, the importance of community support, and the wisdom from Japan that has fed into his new book
LISA GRANIK MW on a new life in wine, looking back on law, Stalin and a long relationship with the Caucasian country of Georgia
BRIAN PORTNOY on how to master the “evolutionary two-step” that keeps us fearing (and hoping) throughout our money lives
ALEX DAVIS on her journey from company director to Latin scholar
FIND A FINANCIAL PLANNER
Investors are far more likely to achieve their goals if they use an experienced financial planner. But really good planners with an evidence-based investment philosophy are sadly in the minority.
If you would like us to put you in touch with one in your area, just click here and send us your email address, and we’ll see if we can help.
Photo background by Hümâ H. Yardım on Unsplash
© The Evidence-Based Investor MMXXIII