The irresistible rise of Amol Rajan – and what his BBC critics think

·9 min read
Amol Rajan has been confirmed as the next presenter of University Challenge - BBC
Amol Rajan has been confirmed as the next presenter of University Challenge - BBC

Your starter for 10 – no conferring. How many programmes does Amol Rajan present? Fingers on buzzers… No, I’m afraid you lose five points. Yes, there’s the Today Programme (obviously), Rethink, The One Show, Start the Week, Amol Rajan Interviews – and now, with Jeremy Paxman’s retirement, University Challenge.

But also remember that you’re never more than a few months away from a Rajan documentary such as How to Break into the Elite or The Princes and the Press; that he has only just stepped down as the BBC’s media editor; and that he’s regularly found heading down the corridor at Broadcasting House to cover for Jeremy Vine and Zoe Ball.

“There was a joke last year that he was in line to be the next James Bond and the next Doctor Who,” according to a BBC News insider. “There was a period when you couldn’t switch on anything without him presenting it. He is incredibly flexible – not just reporting and presenting but grasping topics across a whole range of culture. He has a huge intellectual hinterland and a wide spread of skills, which is unusual – not many people can play all those roles.”

Rajan is “very smart, with an editor’s judgement on stories and issues,” says Richard Sambrook, professor of journalism at Cardiff University and former director of BBC News. “He’s also unencumbered by BBC baggage with an outsider’s eye on opportunities, and he’s easy-going for both colleagues and audiences. “But,” Sambrook adds, “he needs to be careful not to be overused – in the end we need to know what he stands for, and audiences need to know whether he’s a journalist or an all-purpose presenter.”

Rajan’s route to the heart of the UK broadcasting elite has been unconventional. “He stands out at the BBC because he is so ambitious – which is quite non-U there,” says one former colleague. “But he has done social-progress charity work that’s properly admirable. He went to Cambridge, wears the monogrammed shirt, got married at his old college, loves the whole Cambridge thing, but he also wears the gold neck-chain and ear stud, loves cricket and reggae and has called his kids Winston and Jamaica. It’s like: ‘This is me, and I’m going to parlay that into success.’ He’s following the American Dream in the British establishment.”

Amol Rajan with recent interviewee Ian McKellen - BBC
Amol Rajan with recent interviewee Ian McKellen - BBC

Rajan was born in Calcutta to a mother from Pune and a Tamil father from Kumbakonam. The family moved to Tooting, south London when he was three, where Rajan’s mother worked as a dinner lady, a nursery teacher, and eventually at the Foreign Office, while his father was a general manager at a small trading company. He’s proud of their struggle. In 2020 he posted on Twitter: “Happy Father’s Day to my ultimate hero, the cleverest man I’ve met, born into unconscionable poverty, who with his glorious wife (also one of 11 siblings) sacrificed everything to come to [the] UK when I was 3, so that his kids may at least live a fuller, happier life than he did.”

Jean Seaton, director of the Chevening/Foreign Office South Asian Journalists programme, recalls introducing Rajan, while he was editor of The Independent – a position to which he’d been appointed in 2013 at the age of 29 – to “a distinguished woman editor from Pune, very formidable, very able, beautiful and austere, who had the same name as his mother.

“He’d agreed to see her, welcomed her rather grandly, heard her name – and just went to pieces like a little boy, saying ‘My mother’s from Pune.’ He was very awkward and bumbling for their meeting after that, which amused her hugely.”

This emotionally thin-skinned approach worked well when, in 2021, Rajan arrived at the Today programme. It was the perfect time. Lockdown had seen the strait-laced hard-news approach loosen up, with moving stories and even poetry designed to lift the mood and create connections with listeners. Rajan’s emotional responses to stories, his attempts at banter with fellow presenters and his disarmingly affable interviewing style – a dangerous approach for many politicians who responded to his technique, only to find themselves skewered by his well-researched take-downs – seem to have steered the programme in a new, positively enjoyable direction. Rajan proudly told newspapers that he felt “imposter syndrome” when he started the job, and even suggested that he may have had a couple of rums too many to get through his first show, confirming his social-media claim to be a “Reithian rascal”.

This tale, says an ex-Media Show employee, fits in with his love of telling self-deprecating stories. There are three in which he particularly revels. When working as a “mic boy” for Matthew Wright – who gave him his first break in media when hiring from a pool of private-school hopefuls, because he recognised a fellow state-school kid – Rajan accidentally picked out a prankster for interview who proceeded to offer Wright sex on live TV.

Rajan with Google CEO Sundar Pichai - BBC
Rajan with Google CEO Sundar Pichai - BBC

His second favourite tale comes from his early days on The Independent, to which he jumped ship from The Wright Stuff. He was sent to write a “colour piece” about Madeleine McCann’s disappearance in Portugal, and not knowing that meant using local scene-setting detail, filed copy that brimmed with references to a “magenta sky, lilac walls and terracotta brickwork”.

His final favourite, however, has been the subject of some debate. He told it, in one version, at the Bob Friend Memorial Lecture at Kent University in 2018, when discussing the arrival of clickbait and its effects on newspapers. He recalled adding the phrase “one direction” to the headline of a very dry column to up reader numbers at the height of the eponymous boy band’s career.  Yet this was challenged by Mark DiStefano, formerly Buzzfeed’s media editor, who could find no trace of the article – and even interviewed the columnist, who had no recollection of the tale. Rajan gave Buzzfeed a comment on the topic, but tweeted it out before the piece ran, which immediately half-killed the story. Buzzfeed, The Sun and other outlets accused him of inventing “fake news”.

These stories are all “very Amol-ish,” one former colleague says. “They’re self-deprecating but they usually show how clever he is. He’s fun and clever at endearing himself to you, and he’s always been good at collecting people and assiduously networking. But he’s loyal. Matthew Wright came to his wedding, for instance. He makes connections but doesn’t burn you. Just don’t go up for a job against him.”

This is something fellow BBC presenter Samira Ahmed appears to have found out. In a series of Tweets two days before Rajan’s appointment to University Challenge was announced, she revealed that she’d asked for that job, after being a standby presenter this year. “I’ve always been happy to go through an honest fair process and be judged on my merits,” she Tweeted. “I still am.”

Rajan’s rise, however, has proved irresistible. His rapid promotion to editor of The Independent was thanks to the Lebedev family – ex-KGB father Alexander and society-darling son Yevgeny (now Lord Lebedev). “He was Yevgeny’s guy,” another colleague explains. “It was Amol on the private jet, Amol summoned out of bed in the middle of the night to party with him. He was Yevgeny’s handmaiden to British society. They were thick as thieves.

Rajan on Radio 4 with fellow presenter Justin Webb - PA
Rajan on Radio 4 with fellow presenter Justin Webb - PA

“He did so well for Yevgeny, who said, ‘What do you want to do?’ Amol said, ‘I want to be editor of The Independent.’ And that was our carrot – if you do the same, you can become editor. But most of us became former employees, because as soon as things went sour between any of us and Yevgeny, Amol vanished.”

“I imagine that’s why he doesn’t enjoy doing the Today programme,” says another. “It must make him squirm as a presenter when Crimea stuff comes up, or stories on Boris Johnson meeting Alexander Lebedev without officials present. I’m not sure if they switch presenters out, but that could be why he’s not on it so much. But that’s not a good look for him or the BBC.”

Rajan will nonetheless remain on Today when he takes over Paxman’s chair – and he’ll continue with Amol Rajan Interviews, although he’s relinquishing the media-editor gig. Some at the BBC think he needs to do a little less. The mixed public response earlier this year to his documentary on the Royal family, The Princes and the Press, spoke to many in the Corporation of a presenter following his own agenda and producers too wary to hold him back.

“There’s a perception in the ranks that he’s not particularly well produced – because he’s doing everything and risen so fast and far,” says one BBC producer. “A producer needs to take him to one side and get him to slow down, teach him a few basics, but he’s the star kid and it’s not going to happen.”

“You can criticise this and that about him,” his ex-Independent colleague agrees, “and you can point to some things that aren’t perfect – but who is? He’s a very sharp Asian guy from a poor background who may have good connections but has huge talent. He’s flexible, with a wide spread of skills, and the courage to be himself in an environment where there’s not many like him. That’s got to be a good thing.”

Certainly, his approach is likely to bring sweeping changes to University Challenge. Paxman performed an exasperation-lite version of his Newsnight persona, with barbed comments and evident disdain for certain topics – a step towards the dark side after Bamber Gascoigne’s firm politeness. Given the style jump on Today from John Humphrys’s tenacity to Rajan’s honeytrapping, can we expect a millennial-appropriate soft-touch? Might Rajan even allow conferring? “Whatever he does to University Challenge,” the same ex-colleague says, “some people will hate. But I bet you the rest of us will have fun.”