Obituary: Donald Stephenson

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The Independent Online
Donald Stephenson, broadcaster, born 18 May 1909, Arabic Editor 1939 BBC, Director New Delhi 1944, Director Eastern Services 1946, Assistant Controller General Overseas Programmes 1948, Controller North Region 1949, Chief Executive Anglia Television 1958, Head (later Controller) of Overseas and Foreign Relations BBC 1960-71, OBE 1943, CBE 1957, married 1940 Alison Wynn Thomas (died 1965; one son deceased, three daughters), 1982 Francesca Ward, died 2 January 1993.

DONALD STEPHENSON was a remarkable linguist who held many high positions in British broadcasting. He was at different times the BBC's Arabic Editor, its first New Delhi director, its Controller, North Region, and the Chief Executive of Anglia Television. He was also particularly effective as the BBC's equivalent of Foreign Secretary, then called Controller of Overseas and Foreign Relations.

After leaving Denstone College, where he was a scholar, Stephenson spent long periods in Paris and Baghdad perfecting his French and Arabic. He worked in the banking business for six years before taking a permanent commission in the RAF. He then served in both France and the Middle East as an interpreter, working closely with the intelligence services. In 1939 he became the news editor in the newly formed Arabic service of the BBC.

Despite being involved in several wartime controversies with the Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office, Stephenson rose steadily in what was then known as the Overseas Service. Commenting on one of these incidents, his immediate chief wrote, 'HMG should have given us a lead - one way or the other. Indecision and caution are of no use to anyone in these days. Fortunately, Stephenson can be relied upon to take imaginative action . . .'

In 1944 Stephenson was sent to New Delhi to establish the BBC's first office in India. He developed a great rapport with colleagues in All-India Radio. Two decades later when Indira Gandhi was Minister of Broadcasting and Information she asked the BBC to lend an adviser on how to establish a television service. I was the one chosen for this task, and Stephenson, by then Head of Overseas and Foreign Relations, made the practical arrangements for my secondment. 'We could offer this aid free,' he told me, 'and I shall not ask All-India Radio to contribute anything towrds your salary. But I shall insist they pay your fare and your expenses in an air- conditioned hotel. That will involve them in having to go to the Ministry of Finance for special funds, and will ensure that they take your advice seriously, and don't brush it aside, like the totally free advice they get from Unesco.'

Towards the end of the war Stephenson flew from India on a visit to China, where he found 'a profound admiration for the BBC'. But he reported with his customary shrewdness 'I spoke with several Chinese of standing who sang our praises, though more than one, on questioning, revealed that he had rarely if ever heard a BBC transmission, and knew of our excellence only by hearsay.'

Stephenson became the BBC's Eastern Services Director in the summer of 1945 and by 1948 was Assistant Controller of General Overseas Programmes. He was an early critic of sex and violence in domestic drama. 'I have been rejecting almost 100 per cent of Drama Deparment's offers of crime-theme output,' he wrote to his immediate chief. 'Poisoning no longer seems adequate unless it is preceded by adultery. Violence is incomplete without the sound effects of a woman being struck by her husband or lover.'

In June 1949 Stephenson, a Manchester man, was appointed Controller, North Region, which included one third of the population of the country. Under his leadership a rich variety of regional radio programmes were produced. They included Fifty- One Society, a lively discussion forum, a northern Children's Newsreel as well as a special Children's Hour. There were also some of the documentaries made by Denis Mitchell under the heading of People Talking before he adapted the technique to television.

The success of Stephenson's regional leadership made him a natural choice for ITV management as commercial television spread around the country. In 1958 he became the Chief Executive of Anglia Televison, based in Norwich. There was originally a Post Office line to distribute London ITV to Norwich. Stephenson pressed for a return line, which would allow a number of prestigious programmes, to be produced by Anglia, to be fed to the network. The Independent Television Authority duly placed an order for the line with the Post Office, but a bare month after going on the air Stephenson had to report that Anglia could not afford the line at this stage, and asked for the Post Office order to be withdrawn. After barely a year at Anglia he resigned.

He was glad to return to his old bailiwick, this time to take charge of the BBC's international relations. His title, Head of Overseas and Foreign Relations as it was then called, was below the rank that he had enjoyed at Manchester, but it was later upgraded to a controllership. Stephenson played a leading role at the triennial Commonwealth Broadcasting Conferences which preceded the establishment of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association and he was an important participant in the Administrative Council of the European Broadcasting Union, where his excellent idiomatic French was greatly appreciated. He was also greatly involved in dealings with Eastern Europe.

Stephenson retired in 1971, and I was appointed to succeed him. During our month of overlap there was some newspaper publicity concerning a forthcoming television feature programme about the wartime massacre of the Polish army officers at Katyn Wood. The Soviet so-called cultural attache (he later turned out to be one of the 105 spies thrown out of the country by Sir Alec Douglas- Home) rang up and asked to see Stephenson urgently. He arrived shortly afterwards at the office we were sharing, mentioned the fact that the Director-General, Charles Curran, was due to go with Stephenson on an official visit to Poland in the very near future, and said that his Government demanded that the programme be withdrawn. 'My dear Viktor,' Stephenson replied, 'you must know that we are an independent organisation. We don't have to obey orders from our own Government, still less from a foreign government. Have a glass of whisky.'

Viktor retired, discomfited, but did not give up. The next day he sent the Polish press attache, Cieslar, to call us. Cieslar began by saying that he thought it would be most dangerous for this programme about Katyn Wood to be broadcast on the very eve of Curran's visit to Warsaw. 'My dear Mr Cieslar,' Stephenson said this time, 'you must know that the British, like the Poles, never retreat in the face of danger.' Poor Cieslar did not know what to say. Nevertheless the Poles sent a telex abruptly cancelling the visit only hours before Curran and Stephenson were due to leave. After a year I reinstated the visit. Cieslar met us at Warsaw airport.

(Photograph omitted)