Sir Alastair Burnet, journalist, editor and broadcaster, died on 20 July 2012. He was 84.
He was a former editor of The Economist – he first joined its staff in 1958 and spent seven years there before joining Independent Television News (ITN), then took up the editorship in 1965 – so it’s no surprise that his former charge was prompt to publish its obituary for him online, faster than any of the other quality publications. As you’d expect, it concentrates largely on his tenure as editor, which transformed the magazine:
When, in 1972, Uganda’s Asians were expelled, racists in Britain were again horrified that some might seek refuge in Britain. Alastair then put on the cover a picture of an airport arrivals door with a sign reading, “Welcome, British Passport Holders”. The use of covers to make a telling editorial point was perhaps his most lasting legacy at The Economist.
He was also a former editor of the Daily Express for 18 months between 1974 and 1976, although his stint there was relatively unsuccessful (The Guardian commenting that “this was the least successful phase of his career, some saying that he was unwilling to trivialise politics”). The Express duly carried a story reporting his death with the headline: “Express news colossus loved by millions dies”. However, they rather undid the effect of their headline on the website home page by accompanying it with a thumbnail picture – of Sir Alastair’s ITN colleague Alastair Stewart.
But it was his work at ITN – particularly News At Ten – for which he was most famous. In a very lengthy but riveting obituary for The Independent, Nicholas Faith explains just what a debt the programme owed to Sir Alastair right at the very beginning:
In 1967 Burnet forced the reluctant barons of Independent Television to add a full 20 minutes – “over the body of Lew Grade”, as Burnet put it at the time – to what had been merely a 10-minute bulletin. This was a very risky business, since the ITV barons assumed that the experiment would be quietly dropped after a 12-week experimental period. Amazingly he combined his editorship [of The Economist] with a role as one of the main newscasters for News at Ten between 1967 and 1973.
The Daily Telegraph carries another long obituary, with a good deal of comment about Sir Alastair’s Conservative political views and his relationships with the political parties during his broadcasting career:
While other newscasters maintained an impassive gaze, Burnet’s twitch of an eyebrow or slightly sardonic tone left viewers in no doubt of his real opinions. He mostly restricted this sort of “oblique editorialising” to non-political topics, yet his known Conservative sympathies caused some disquiet, as did his decision to accept a knighthood in 1984. Tony Benn complained that he had got it for “creating trouble for the Labour Party”.
The Guardian also comments on his politics, though at less length:
Although politically Conservative himself, Burnet never commented on the assertion once made that he drank a lot of champagne off camera on election night in 1970 when it became apparent that the Tories would win. He listed whisky as one of his three great passions, alongside racing and cricket, but referred to reports of drinking a bottle a day as “rather too flattering”.
(Sir James William Alexander Burnet, born 12 July 1928 in Sheffield, died 20 July 2012 in London)
The Guardian: Sir Alastair Burnet
The Independent: Sir Alastair Burnet Journalist and broadcaster who transformed ‘The Economist’ and created ‘News at Ten’
The Telegraph: Sir Alastair Burnet
The Economist: Obituary: Alastair Burnet