Published 29/07/2012 | 05:00
Avuncular journalist and broadcaster who brought gravitas and style to ITN's flagship 'News at Ten' programme
Alastair Burnet, who has died aged 84, hosted ITN's News at Ten at its launch in 1967 and went on to transform it from an energetic nightly news bulletin to an authoritative, though quirky, national institution associated with his name.
Robin Day described Burnet as "the booster rocket that put ITN into orbit". His serious persona (concerned frown and jutting jaw beneath a somewhat bulbous nose) and sepulchral tones expressed a mixture of gravitas and avuncular concern and left viewers in no doubt when trouble was brewing.
A lighter touch, punctuated with hints of mock surprise, was reserved for football results and cricket scores (of which he had an encyclopaedic memory), and he originated the jaunty "and finally" sign-off items -- the point of which sometimes left viewers baffled. "Alastair wrote them himself," one ITN scriptwriter recalled. "Let's just say his sense of humour is rather different."
As associate editor of News at Ten, Burnet dominated by the sheer force of his personality and appetite for hard work. Editorial meetings were held in his office, and he often wrote the script for nearly half the bulletin.
Colleagues recognised his huge professional skill -- when a satellite feed went down he could always be relied upon to ad lib knowledgably about the story while listening to the director telling him through his earpiece how many more seconds he would have to fill.
Accordingly, he was respected by viewers and revered by colleagues; but inside ITN Burnet was a far more controversial and powerful figure than his courtly manner and deferential interviewing style suggested.
He had established an independent reputation before joining ITN, and nearly 20 years as a print journalist (and editor successively of The Economist and the Daily Express) gave him a command of language and understanding of public affairs that few could equal. As well as fronting News at Ten, Burnet anchored coverage of four general elections and served as a member of the ITN board.
There were occasional criticisms of the supposedly pro-Conservative spin he sometimes put on stories. During the Falklands conflict in 1982, he went further down the road of editorialising the news than anyone had previously dared to do, adding morale-boosting homilies of his own at the end of particularly dire pieces of news from the South Atlantic.
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".
More serious for Burnet's career, however, was the perception, towards the end of the 1980s, that he was losing touch with ITN's audience. Though he prided himself on his instinctive understanding of what those he called "plain folk" would be talking about the next day, by the late 1980s News at Ten was seen as stodgy and old-fashioned in comparison with a revitalised BBC News.
In 1990, Rupert Murdoch's Today newspaper carried an attack by an unnamed ITN journalist who described Burnet as too old, too authoritarian and too Tory.
But it was not so much his performance as a newsreader that caused Burnet's downfall as the part he played in a series of bitter clashes with the ITV companies over the future of ITN, which by the late 1980s was in a state of financial crisis brought on by huge editorial overspending. The companies' resentment at Burnet's opposition to cost-cutting was compounded by his vigorous support for government proposals to force ITV to sell ITN.
When in February 1990 Burnet's suggested restructuring package was rejected, he resigned from the ITN board. He resigned as news presenter the next year, 18 months before the end of his contract.
James William Alexander Burnet was born in Sheffield on July 12, 1928, the son of a Scottish engineer. He was educated at the Leys School, Cambridge, and at Worcester College, Oxford, where he read history.
After graduation he spent eight years working as a sub-editor and leader writer on the Glasgow Herald before Donald Tyerman recruited him for The Economist in 1958. The same year he married Maureen Sinclair, a sub-editor on a rival Glasgow paper.
He joined ITN in 1963 as its political editor.
Burnet anchored ITN's coverage of the 1964 and 1966 elections, and on July 3, 1967, with Andrew Gardiner sitting beside him, launched the first News at Ten bulletin. The viewing figures for the first week put five editions of News at Ten in the top 20. It was originally scheduled to last just 13 weeks.
Like other members of his broadcasting generation, Burnet had his special projects. While Ludovic Kennedy investigated miscarriages of justice and Robin Day bickered with politicians, Burnet became known for making "specials" about the royal family.
He was said to have made £1m with his ITN book about Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, but his sycophantic style brought ridicule. When Fluck and Law devised an Alastair Burnet puppet for Spitting Image they were merciless, portraying him as a cringing, fawning royalist ("lick, lick, smarm, smarm"). In one sketch, Charles and Diana puppets were seen walking up an endless red carpet -- which turned out to be Burnet's tongue.
In person, Burnet was a shy, sensitive man whose reticence was often mistaken for arrogance and whose controlled manner covered many insecurities. In his early days he would be sick before facing the camera.
At the same time, though, Burnet could be the life and soul of the party and was always the first to put his hand in his pocket at the bar.
He was a keen racegoer and supported Partick Thistle and Rangers football clubs.
Burnet, who died on July 12, appeared to have little private life. He and his wife had no children, and though they remained married they lived separate lives.
Friends described their relationship as "a very civilised arrangement".