Obituary: Sir Alastair Burnet
- 20 July 2012
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
With his avuncular figure and an air of authority honed from a career in journalism, Sir Alastair Burnet, who has died at the age of 84, was best known as the presenter of ITN's News at Ten and as ITV's anchorman for royal and state occasions, elections and budgets.
Before working in television full time, Burnet enjoyed a successful career in print journalism, which included nine years as editor of The Economist and a much shorter, less happy spell as editor of The Daily Express.
Alastair Burnet - christened James William Alexander - was born in Sheffield to Scottish parents. He attended the Leys School, Cambridge (evacuated to Scotland during the war), then went up to Oxford to read history.
He worked on The Glasgow Herald for seven years and on The Economist as a leader writer, before going to ITN as political editor.
Along with Andrew Gardner, he presented the first episode of ITN's News at Ten on 3 July 1967.
Burnet returned to The Economist as editor, and increased the circulation by 50,000 over nine years. He is credited with introducing the magazine's "clever" covers - using irreverent pictures in place of dense amounts of text.
Burnet switched to the BBC in the early 1970s, presenting Panorama and anchoring the corporation's 1974 election programmes.
He edited The Daily Express briefly before rejoining ITN full time in 1976.
He became the biggest editorial influence on the programme. He also became an Associate Editor of ITN.
Alastair Burnet carved a particular niche for himself in British television. He had interviewed many leading politicians, and was highly regarded by the royal family.
In 1985, he was the first journalist to be granted an interview by the Prince and Princess of Wales - an interview which topped the television ratings. Resulting book and video sales raised £1m for charity.
However, not everyone enjoyed his style. Satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image famously portrayed Sir Alastair as a cringing, fawning royalist, forever trying to suck up to the nearest available member of the royal family.
He was also criticised for his supposed liberal Tory views.
Burnet did the commentaries for ITV on the royal weddings in 1981 and 1986 and on Pope John Paul II's visit to Britain. He won high praise for these and his work on elections and budgets.
He also won several awards, including the Richard Dimbleby Bafta award in 1966, 1970 and 1979 and was knighted in the 1984 New Year honours.
Alastair Burnet retired early in 1991, a year after he had resigned from the board at ITN in a dispute over the ownership of the company.
In 2000, he campaigned with others to have News at Ten restored after it was rescheduled. He complained of a "fundamental decay at ITV's heart" and said that "ITN's reputation cannot hope to remain untouched".
Burnet was the ultimate safe pair of hands in news presenting, with a mastery of politics and a concern for what the "plain folk" wanted to know.