Austin Hunter was a great guy, a terrific journalist who contributed much in his several years as News Letter editor, in his earlier career as a BBC journalist and later as a public relations consultant.
My relationship with Austin dates back 41 years when he worked as a young reporter with the Strabane Weekly News, a newspaper in the Tyrone Constitution group, then edited by the late Norman Armstrong.
Austin was the News Letter correspondent for Strabane and we met up in the then heavily fortified North Tyrone town for a series of articles I was doing for the News Letter on main cities and towns within the 26 district councils, titled ‘Your Town’.
Austin was a complete encyclopedia on life in West and North Tyrone and he provided me with a detailed insight into what was then quite a difficult town to work in with the Troubles, and being so close to the Donegal border. Austin took me to Clady (and the “Devil’s Hump), a tiny hamlet just on the border that was used by the Provisional IRA as a bolthole after committing atrocities in the North.
Even though I was a South Armagh man, I was somewhat apprehensive as I looked over into Donegal. But Austin, still in his early twenties, knew the area well and he put me at ease as I gathered valuable material for the News Letter feature on Strabane, which then had a 15-member council, controlled by an amalgam of nationalists and independents.
My first impressions of Austin on that first encounter was of a knowledgeable young man, well grounded in his integrity, with an engaging personality and a natural appetite for news.
Educated at Omagh Academy, he was intensely proud of his West Tyrone roots and he maintained this when he worked for several decades in the ‘Big Smoke’ as a BBC reporter and presenter.
When he joined the News Letter as editor in 2004, I was privileged to work under him as the paper’s chief leader writer and, in his leadership at the Boucher Crescent offices in South Belfast, he earned the total respect and support of the journalists working under him.
In his several years at the helm, he turned the paper’s circulation around after a period of decline largely due to disillusionment by a significant number of traditional unionist readers after the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Austin had a firm, engaging, subtle and warm approach as editor. He was a mentor, an encourager, particularly with young reporters. As one who believed in the Union, Austin keep faith with the traditional Unioinist ethos of the News Letter and he was a popular editor.
In his other roles as a public relations consultant with the PSNI, and later with the loyal orders, Austin always demonstrated his professionalism and public friendly approach.
His journalistic skills apart, Austin was first and foremost a true friend and colleague, an extremely caring individual who could rightly be described as “an institution”.