Austin Hunter: Charismatic figure who restored a newspaper which he cherished

Austin Hunter back in his News Letter editor days
Austin Hunter back in his News Letter editor days

It may have been more than a decade since Austin Hunter’s tenure as editor of the News Letter, but his bond with this newspaper remained to the day of his unexpected and tragic death.

We met for the final time just a few short weeks ago in our offices in Portadown. He was working with former Special Branch officer William Matchett on the publication of a book, The Secret Victory.

The serialisation rights were up for grabs and there was no doubt about where Austin wanted them to go.

We serialised the book the following week and Austin was overjoyed to learn that the serialistion was a success and that we put on newspaper sales, a rare feat indeed these days.

We continued to text and exchange emails, the final exchange as recently as Thursday. There was the promise of further collaborations, but sadly that won’t happen now.

The News Letter was Austin’s paper. He was editor between 2004 and 2006, and it was in his blood.

I was a reporter on the paper back in those days and Austin was a charismatic presence in the newsroom. Following on from a difficult period for the paper, Austin came in and restored it to the forefront of the Northern Ireland news agenda.

Circulation figures were their best for eight years. Austin knew and understood the values of the News Letter, he understood our readers because he was one of them.

He fought on the issues that mattered to the unionist community like any good News Letter editor should.

As an editor, he was comfortable on the biggest stages, a calm and insightful presence on television as an election pundit or mixing with politicians and leading business figures. But equally in the newsroom he was a warm and reassuring presence.

He backed his reporters even when they made mistakes and when you broke a big story, there was a wave for you to join him in the hallowed turf of the editor’s office followed by a big handshake, a pat on the back and a sweet.

We instantly had a bond. Like many from the unionist community in Co Tyrone, he loved cricket and after moving to Comber, he spent many afternoons watching North Down Cricket Club.

One of the highlights of his year was the annual trip to England to watch a Test match with his son Simon, himself a former News Letter journalist.

He and wife Jean recently moved house to be closer to Simon, wife Angela and their young family. You could tell he was passionate about his grandchildren, and right to the end the News Letter was part of his life.

Every time we spoke he enthused about our iPad edition, which he got downloaded and read every day before his breakfast.

He even implored me to increase the monthly subscription which he insisted was too cheap!

It’s hard to fathom that we will never speak again.

His passing is a devastating loss for his family, the News Letter and for the media industry in Northern Ireland.