A memorial service was held today for Sir Alastair Burnet at St Martins-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. Hundreds of family, friends and colleagues from the worlds of politics, print journalism, broadcasting and horse racing turned out to pay their respects and celebrate his life.
Andrew Neil gave the eulogy along with Sir David Nicholas, Alastair’s editor at ITN, and Alastair Stewart, one of his protégés at ITN. This is Andrew’s tribute to his friend, colleague and mentor.
I first met Alastair in the autumn of 1972. He was Editor of The Economist. I was looking for a job. He offered me a whisky. It was three in the afternoon. But I thought it churlish to refuse. Maybe even a bad career move.
After several more whiskies and an exhilarating hour in his company, he revealed that there were no vacancies. But he’d be in touch if one came up.
“Don’t call me, I’ll call you” is what he’s really saying I mumbled to myself as I rather quickly sobered up on the way home.
But he did call a few months later and on January 1st 1973 I began work as an Economist journalist, in those days one of London’s gilded prizes. As a good Scotsman he was a bit embarrassed I had to start on New Year’s Day. ‘But no need to come in much before Noon,’ he added.
Alastair didn’t just start my career. He advised, shaped and encouraged it for the rest of his life. Long after he ceased to be my editor, he remained my mentor and friend.
It was a rare privilege. Despite being one of the best-known faces in the country, Alastair was a very private person. He had an infectious bonhomie; but he allowed few to get close. Those of us lucky enough to be let in were rewarded with one of life’s great experiences.
This country has produced many great journalists, in print and broadcasting. Alastair had the unique distinction of being superbly accomplished at both, a wonderful wordsmith in print, a masterful broadcaster on the airwaves, the best this country has ever produced.
I was not alone in wanting to be Alastair Burnet. Many in our business saw him as their role model. Many succeeded, in part thanks to his inspiration.
Of course nobody could be Alastair, straddling the worlds of print and broadcast with his consummate ease and professionalism. But he set the standard to which we aspired.
Alastair invented the modern Economist; almost 40 years from stepping down as editor his influence is still evident. He gave a rather staid, even obscure publication wider appeal and greater influence without any loss of intellectual rigour or authority. He introduced covers that had impact and humour; clever headlines that caught the eye; quirky picture captions that made you smile.
He taught us all to write in clear, concise prose bereft of ostentation. He was, of course, entirely bereft of ostentation himself.
‘Never use a big word when a small one will do,’ was the first sentence in Alastair’s in-house style sheet, conscious that as The Economist’s global reach grew, many new readers would have English as a second language.
The Economist’s sales rose 60 per cent during his decade as editor, the magazine more influential in British governing circles in his day than at any time since Bagehot’s reign in the 19th century – yet its quest for world domination in the serious weekly magazine stakes well and truly underway, something Bagehot could not even imagine.
Working for Alastair was a master class in journalism – with fun thrown in.
‘If you can’t get the little things right,’ he once said gently chiding me for a relatively minor mistake ‘how can we trust you on the big ones.’
He worked late into Wednesday nights, often past midnight, a glass of Teacher’s on his desk, reading every piece of copy that would be printed next day, while doing his own running commentary on the football match on TV, the only editor I’ve ever known who could improve a piece on the intricacies of US Federal Reserve monetary policy while calling Chelsea offside against Liverpool.
Then it was off to Fu Tong’s – or Tommy Fu’s as he called it –for a late night Chinese on Kensington High Street. I was lucky enough to be included, mainly because I hung around late enough to be invited.
And it was there that I was first regaled by Alastair’s brilliant story-telling of encounters with all the politicians of the day, every one superbly mimicked.
His Glaswegian was particularly acute, indeed better than most Glaswegians. And his Belfast wasn’t bad either.
I would sit mesmerised, feeling I had won the lottery to the top table of life. Joy it was to be in his company, then and always. But there was a price to pay: we had to be at the printers by 7am the following morning. Alastair was always there before the rest of us, reading the copy on the page for the 2nd and even 3rd time, tweaking and updating it as he went. And he always stayed until late Thursday evening as the presses ran and pages were changed to take into account breaking news.
Alastair was always a gentleman. But he was never a gentleman journalist. He was professional and diligent to his core.
There was so much to learn from him, from his deft subbing to his no-nonsense prose to his composure when things went wrong. One night, just as we were to go to press, an article on precious metals fell 10 lines short. Alastair filled the void effortlessly, all the more remarkable given that he knew nothing about precious metals.
Sometimes there was little doubt you were working with genius. At the height of the Watergate scandal he produced the first ever cover with no words, just a little papier maché doll of President Nixon standing on the White House lawn, his wrists handcuffed with the audio tape that was eventually to bring him down. It was such a brilliant image that US publications rushed to reproduce it.
Of course it was not as Editor of The Economist but as the face and voice of ITN that Alastair was known to the wider public. That mellifluous voice, so clear in diction and pregnant with authority, with just a hint of Lowland Scots for those with an ear for such matters; the dignity, the tone, that sparse Economist prose now translated to scripts – they all combined to make him the anchorman, as the Americans call it, of his generation – indeed of all generations in the history of British broadcasting.
Some have said Alastair Burnet was Britain’s Walter Cronkite. I prefer to see Cronkite as America’s Burnet.
It is sometimes forgotten how ITN ruled the airwaves in the days of Alastair Burnet. Of course he did not do this alone: he had the inestimable David Nicholas as editor and the incorrigible Diana Edwards-Jones as director – and a talent pool of correspondents, technicians and co-presenters unrivalled in British broadcasting. Together they made News at Ten the country’s premier news broadcast.
Our country is supposed to turn to the BBC at times of national crisis; and often it does. But during the Falklands’ War it turned to Alastair and ITN. Each night during the conflict the nation went to bed informed and, if necessary, reassured by his measured and reliable tones. We trusted Alastair to tell us the truth.
News at Ten was launched 45 years ago this year by Alastair and David and what they did remains the yardstick for other newscasts to match. He presented five general elections, the Apollo moon landings and two royal weddings. He made it seem he did them all with effortless ease. But Alastair did his homework and urged those who would follow in his wake to do the same.
His ability to cope on live programmes was legendary. Most broadcasters are able to ad lib these days – I can even manage it passably myself – but Alastair didn’t just fill airtime.
As David Nicholas has said, when technical problems meant the camera had to stay on Alastair and EJ would shout in his ear – ‘Alastair just fill for the next two hours’ – instead of time-filling drivel out would come a pearl of an essay to illuminate, whatever the event being covered.
Of course Alastair knew what he was talking about. He was an authority on American as well as British politics. And he knew how to put words together in a way that captured the popular imagination.
‘There’s the old moon, the one the cow jumped over,’ he quipped during the Apollo landings.
At the end of the first ever results programme for elections to the European parliament he turned to the camera and said: ‘Just over three decades ago from the Shetlands to Sicily, this Continent was at war. Today from the Shetlands to Sicily it has elected a Parliament. Goodnight.’
It was a classic example of his ability to place the contemporary in an historic context. It goes back to his Oxford days when Alan Bullock was his history tutor and Isaiah Berlin a seminal influence, as was RT Clarke, a key figure in BBC wartime broadcasting whom he worked alongside at the Glasgow Herald and who taught him the importance of trust in journalism.
A lesson some of today’s broadcasters are having to re-learn the hard way.
Alastair would probably have become a history don if he hadn’t done what he did. Journalism’s gain, academia’s loss.
He knew more than enough to respond to any event, fill any gap. In the run up to the February 1974 election, which he anchored for the BBC, he asked me to be his researcher. Just shout questions at me in the office, he suggested.
So, like Cato, the Chinese servant in the Pink Panther movies, I would jump out of cupboards and rooms at The Economist armed with the BBC’s massive constituency guide and shout: ‘Bolton East!’ A Tory marginal, he would reply, more marginal than usual because after the redrawing of the boundaries it’s taken in a large council estate.
Newcastle Central, I retaliated. Stays Labour even in a Tory landslide, he responded. One of the candidates is called Mr Pickup. Interesting name: he’s a lorry driver.
The knowledge never left him. He once appeared on a radio phone-in I was doing for LBC. Someone called to ask a question about sport.
Before I answer that, said Alastair, weren’t you the Liberal candidate for [such and such a] constituency in the last election?
Yes, the chap replied, rather taken aback anybody would remember. I lost my deposit. I didn’t like to mention that, said Alastair. Now to answer your question …
We all have our happy memories and stories of Alastair to cherish. But what sums him up best for me is this.
During the long and violent Wapping dispute, when death threats were a daily occurrence, potential attacks just round the corner and I went everywhere with two bodyguards, after a long day essentially imprisoned in the Sunday Times office I always tried to get home in time for News at Ten. Every so often, within 15 minutes or so of it finishing, the doorbell would go and security would say through the videophone: ‘Sir Alastair Burnet is here to see you’.
And up the stairs would come this most generous of men, this stalwart friend, this greatest of mentors, this broadcaster without peer who had just delivered the news to millions of viewers, to say: ‘I just thought I’d pop in on the way home to take a drink off you’.
And he would stay for an hour or even two, just making sure I was OK.
That is the Alastair Burnet I will never forget. The Alastair you will always remember with your own memories.
Three men have mattered in my life: my loving father, my wonderful brother … and Alastair. All are gone now. I feel a great loss, as much for Alastair as for my loss of family. I can put my love, respect and reverence for him no higher.
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