Stephen Bonarjee

BBC editor who defined the purpose of the 'Today' programme
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The Independent Online

Stephen Wilson Bonarjee, radio editor: born Erith, Kent 15 May 1912; married; died London 14 September 2003.

Stephen Bonarjee was the father of analytical journalism on BBC Radio. At a time when colleagues expected listeners to defect to television, he recognised the enduring power and intimacy of the senior service. Bonarjee designed radio programmes that remain staples of the Radio 4 schedule three decades after he retired. He created From Our Own Correspondent and defined the purpose of the Today programme, setting it on course to become the nation's daily agenda setter.

As Programme Editor Current Affairs Sound from the early 1960s Bonarjee had almost absolute power over radio current affairs. He was an example of the generation of BBC executives who rose through the ranks of programme makers and remained in touch with their instincts and ambitions. Sue MacGregor, the former Today presenter, knew Bonarjee when she was a young reporter on World at One. She remembers him as

a clever man. Not a Dalek or a speak-your-weight machine. He was cautious but willing to take decisions that might prove controversial.

Among these was Bonarjee's decision to make Today a "sharper, harder" programme, very different from the ragbag of whimsical items as it was when it started in 1957. In 1963, when Today was moved from its original home in the BBC's Talks Department to Bonarjee's Current Affairs empire, he pioneered a distinct break from the frivolous geniality to which it had aspired at launch. Bonarjee was determined that Today should "invariably be a lively, polished product". In a document explaining his ambitions to colleagues he wrote that it

should concern itself mainly with broad extrovert human interests and talking points, but should not be afraid to be serious when necessary.

That broad outline defined the programme's character in time for an era of profound social change. To colleagues Bonarjee seemed well suited to managing new demands. Once, in the late 1960s, when consulted about the acceptability of broadcasting the word "fuck" in a report about teenagers and love he replied that "if it is acceptable to the programme team then it is OK by me". A few years later Bonarjee noticed that few members of the Woman's Hour team had children of their own. He insisted that the next producer should be a mother.

Female colleagues considered him a sincere supporter in their efforts to attain equal status at the BBC. But he was not a feminist. MacGregor recalls that Bonarjee once demanded the removal of Women's Liberation posters from the walls of an office at Woman's Hour.

Bonarjee fought hard to increase radio listening at a time when audience ratings were not always deemed a suitable topic for discussion; he was a very early exponent of the view that BBC programmes must function as "products" with proven appeal in the marketplace.

Stephen Bonarjee was born in Erith in Kent to an Indian father and a Scottish mother. His father had been a civil servant in the Indian Army department but came to Britain with the ambition of being ordained in the Church of England. He attended Caterham School, where, in 1929, his lifelong commitment to Liberalism first manifested itself when he stood as the Liberal candidate in a mock election. He studied at St Andrews University before entering journalism via local newspapers. He joined the staff of the Manchester Guardian in 1938.

During the Second World War Bonarjee did service with the Lancashire Fusiliers and reached the end of the conflict in the rank of captain. He joined the BBC as a radio producer following his demobilisation. He had a brief spell in television production at Alexandra Palace but soon escaped back to radio, where he remained until his retirement from the corporation in 1972.

He excelled at the coverage of politics and was among the first to introduce academic psephologists and political commentators to the BBC's coverage of general elections. For him the politics of Broadcasting House were also important and his relaxed demeanour and barbed humour allowed him to win the battles for promotion and influence. The same skills made him popular among journalists, who regarded Bonarjee as an ally in their confrontations with BBC bureaucracy.

Bonarjee was briefly married during the war but reverted to bachelorhood with apparent relief. He was obliged to disguise his party-political convictions during his service as a BBC executive, but moved on to work as press secretary to the Liberal Party after retiring and served as Chairman of the National Liberal Club between 1994 and 1997. Colleagues remember him as a sociable man who would invite former colleagues to club lunches. These sessions allowed him to keep a close eye on developments at Broadcasting House until the very end of his life.

Stephen Bonarjee was a committed moderniser who left the BBC with many more admirers than detractors. He assembled ground-breaking teams at programmes including Today and The Week in Westminster and was always conscious of the need to innovate in order to thrive.

Tim Luckhurst