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17 July 2023

Behind the rise of Amol Rajan

Former colleagues recall being “flabbergasted” by his success, but soon he’ll be presenting University Challenge. What’s his secret?

By William Turvill

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in September 2022. On 29 May, Jeremy Paxman bid farewell to University Challenge. Tonight (17 July) on BBC Two, the first episode of the new series airs with Paxman’s successor, Amol Rajan. Will Turvill looks at the secret behind Rajan’s success.

When Amol Rajan was plucked from Fleet Street to join the BBC, not everybody there was convinced by him. He didn’t have a perfect, Queen’s English accent; some thought the former newspaper editor had insufficient broadcast training; others took issue with his excitable, fast-paced delivery. Rajan sought to address at least one of these concerns. During his early days on Radio 4, he would routinely place a handwritten note-to-self on the desk in front of him. It read, “SLOW THE F**K DOWN.”  

Six years on, Rajan still has his critics – colleagues who say he is “too familiar”, that his celebrity interviews are “fawning”. Some felt it was improper of him to tweet about drinking three shots of rum before his Today programme debut on Radio 4; others rankle when he greets 6am listeners with a “Hello!” rather than a “Good morning”. Yet clearly, the 39-year-old also has many fans, including the BBC bosses who have offered him a dizzying array of exciting jobs.

Rajan has worked variously as the BBC’s media editor and presenter of its Media Show, a Masterchef critic, and the host of the Big Debate on the Asian Network. He has covered for Zoe Ball and Jeremy Vine on Radio 2, and been a regular stand-in on The One Show. After Rajan landed a job on Today last year, insiders began exchanging wry jokes about which enviable position he could possibly be offered next. The answer came when he was named as the next face of University Challenge, replacing Jeremy Paxman.

It’s difficult to find current and former colleagues who dislike Rajan as a person. (Believe me, I tried.) He’s a charmer, he credits off-air colleagues for their work, he likes to buy people lunch, he cycles between assignments and rides economy class with producers, he runs a charity (KEY Sessions) that seeks to aid the career aspirations of inner-city teenagers, he’s a father of three who finds time to split parenting duties with his wife, Charlotte Faircloth, an associate professor at University College London.

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But Rajan’s enviable portfolio of work is creating some disquiet among on-air rivals. One well-known peer told me the BBC’s presenter class feels “curious and perplexed by the volume of offers that have come his way”. So, what is the secret of Rajan’s rise? I asked this question to more than a dozen of his current and former colleagues. One ex-Independent journalist probably summed it up best, in one breath describing Rajan as “extremely talented”, “fiercely ambitious”, a “relentless networker” and a “good guy”.

[See also: Can the BBC recover from Richard Sharp’s disastrous chairmanship?]

Rajan was born in Kolkata, India and raised in Tooting, south London. He was state educated at Graveney School and went on to read English at Downing College, Cambridge. In 2005, the university’s newspaper, Varsity, included Rajan in its “Talent 100” list of ones to watch. He was recognised for his media achievements (in fact, Rajan edited Varsity at the time, though the Talent 100 was compiled by an independent panel), as well as being noted for his cricketing ability.  

Rajan started his media career as a “mic boy” on Channel 5’s The Wright Show. Simon Kelner, then the editor-in-chief of the Independent, was an occasional guest. One day, Rajan collared him to ask for a job. “I was rather taken by his enthusiasm and hunger,” said Kelner. Rajan worked his way across several departments at the Independent, narrowly avoiding redundancy. Memories of him there are mixed: two former Indy staffers described Rajan as an unremarkable journalist at this time, two others commended his intellect and “incredible self-belief”. Arguably, Rajan’s big break came in 2011 when Evgeny (now Lord) Lebedev, the Independent’s Russian proprietor, took a shine to him and made him his press adviser. This 18-month secondment included PR, speech writing and global travel with Lebedev and occasionally his father, Alexander, a former KGB agent.

Not long after his return to the newsroom, Rajan was elevated to become the Independent’s first non-white editor in June 2013, aged just 29. “Many of us were flabbergasted,” said one former Indy staffer. “Working closely with Lebedev was the making of him,” commented another. “They were almost like brothers.” I met and interviewed Rajan in the Independent’s Kensington HQ in 2014. He told me he was “very close” to Evgeny and felt “very, very loyal” to both Lebedevs. That was eight years ago. Earlier this year, Alexander Lebedev was sanctioned by the Canadian government over his links with Vladimir Putin, putting pressure on the UK to follow. A colleague of Rajan told me he has not exchanged a word with Alexander since 2016. They said Rajan is “barely in touch with” Evgeny and that they are “no longer close”.

Rajan oversaw the closure of the Independent as a physical newspaper in 2016 and later that year was poached by James Harding, then the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, to become its media editor. Working for the BBC clearly means a lot to Rajan. Every time he approaches Broadcasting House, I was told, he stops at the statue of George Orwell and ritually places a hand at the bronze replica feet of his journalistic hero. According to two long-standing BBC staffers, Rajan faced an uphill battle with many rank-and-file journalists. One said there was a widely held perception that Harding, a former Times editor, was recruiting Fleet Street journalists in favour of promoting from within. The other, a supporter of Rajan, noted that his arrival coincided with an internal debate around gender disparity. “I think to some women at the BBC, Amol came to be seen as the bogeyman, the reason they weren’t getting jobs.”

The same source said there was “and still is, this misconception that Amol gets given every job automatically. But actually he’s very good at it. As a broadcaster, he has this amazing affinity with the public.” I received similar feedback from Rajan’s other behind-the-scenes colleagues, and from Today editors who describe him as a “breath of fresh air”. Emily Maitlis, a presenter who recently left the BBC for LBC, told me: “I think he’s a hugely valuable voice at the BBC.” 

Nonetheless, others in Broadcasting House remain suspicious of Rajan’s rise. The theory is that the BBC and its director-general, Tim Davie, are determined to keep Rajan happy amid interest from rival broadcasters. ITV apparently wanted him to succeed Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain. (For what it’s worth, Morgan himself told me Rajan – “intelligent, curious and charming” – would have made an adequate replacement.) I asked Justin Webb, another Today presenter who recently began co-hosting the BBC’s US politics podcast Americast, what he thought of Rajan. “Well, he didn’t get Americast!” Webb joked. “You’d have to ask him whether he applied. Maybe he would have done if he’d decided he had time. No, look he’s a bright guy and he’s a brilliant broadcaster.” Another well-known BBC presenter said: “He’s had a very sharp rise. When that happens there are potentially quite a lot of annoyed people. I guess everyone knows that he had at least one job offer and that he leveraged very successfully off it.”

With his weighty and growing portfolio, Rajan will likely soon become one of the BBC’s highest-paid journalists, even if he is to relinquish his media editor role. In 2021, he made at least £325,000, and University Challenge will be a big earner (although the BBC does not publish this salary). Rajan is, by most accounts, a talented broadcaster. But, in an era of licence fee freezes, tightening budgets and presenter disquiet, he will come under immense pressure to prove that he is worth the investment.

[See also: John Simpson: critics accuse the BBC of bias, but its reporters never bow to political pressure]

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