Austin Hunter’s family ‘touched’ by deluge of warm tributes to ex-News Letter editor

Austin Hunter, who was a keen cricket fan, pictured with Ireland and England batsman  Ed Joyce at Stormont.' Picture: Gavan Caldwell
Austin Hunter, who was a keen cricket fan, pictured with Ireland and England batsman Ed Joyce at Stormont.' Picture: Gavan Caldwell

The family of one of the leading figures in the Northern Ireland media world have paid tribute after his death in the Middle East.

Former News Letter editor Austin Hunter, 64, was knocked down and killed in a road crash in Bahrain.

The Co Tyrone born father-of-two was on business in the Arab state when the incident happened on Saturday.

In a career spanning 45 years, Mr Hunter held a range of influential jobs in media and public relations.

He worked as a broadcast journalist for BBC Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles.

In a statement, Mr Hunter’s wife Jean, son Simon and daughter Rachael said: “We’re absolutely devastated at the loss of a loving husband, father and grandfather.

“We are deeply touched by the warm tributes paid by so many and they have given us some comfort at this awful time.

“Right now, we want to focus on our family and despite media interest we would gratefully appreciate the space to grieve.”

In the early days of his career, Mr Hunter worked for the Strabane Weekly News, Tyrone Constitution and BBC Radio Foyle.

In the sphere of public relations, he was head of communications for the police in Northern Ireland during a time of unprecedented change when the old Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

Prior to that he headed up the BBC’s public relations department in Belfast.

Mr Hunter also worked for a number of years as the head of communications at the Orange Order.

In recent years he worked overseas as a media consultant for Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas (NI-CO) - an organisation that sends local experts to advise state bodies abroad.

He was on assignment with NI-CO in Bahrain when the crash occurred.

Mr Hunter was named the Press Photographer’s PR Person of the Year in 1997 and was awarded the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Media Relations Person of the Year Award in 1998.

This year, he played a key role in the campaign that resulted in Northern Ireland securing its first air ambulance.

Away from work, Mr Hunter had an enduring love of sport - cricket and hockey in particular.

Stormont’s First Minister Arlene Foster was among those paying tribute.

“Shocked and deeply saddened to hear of the death of Austin Hunter,” said the DUP leader.

“Held in the highest regard by all who knew him. Deepest sympathy.”

Current editor of the News Letter, Alistair Bushe said he was “devastated” to learn of the news.

“During Austin’s period as editor of the News Letter, it achieved its best circulation figures for eight years,” he said.

“His leadership skills help lead it out of a difficult period and even after he left the paper in 2006, I know he always maintained a close affinity for the News Letter.

“He was a hugely respected and well liked figure across the media industry in Northern Ireland.

“My deepest sympathy to his family at this terrible time.”

Ulster Unionist leader and former journalist Mike Nesbitt said: “When we first met at the BBC, Austin was a great fan of cricket and reported for Sportsound when I was a presenter at BBC NI Sport.

“We both went on to work for BBC News and Current Affairs and he established a deserved reputation for solid, considered journalism, picking a fine line as he reported at a time of often huge tension and controversy.

“I admired him very much, both as a professional broadcaster and as a fine human being who was always keener on talking about others rather than himself. My thoughts are with the Hunter family at this shocking time.”

Fellow Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy said: “Austin Hunter was a distinguished journalist of the highest standards and also a very fine man. He was an outstanding journalist with the BBC and as editor at the News Letter.

“Austin covered many stories over the period of The Troubles, not least the story of Kingsmills in which he produced an important documentary which brought to the wider community the full horror of that atrocity.

“He was at all times professional and scrupulously fair. I extend my heartfelt sympathy to his wife and family at this sad time.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said: “Austin was a man who made his mark in many people’s lives not just through journalism but who used his talents, often on a voluntary basis, to help deserving causes.”