Alastair Burnet

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Alastair Burnet
Alastair Burnet.jpg
James William Alexander Burnet

(1928-07-12)12 July 1928
Died20 July 2012(2012-07-20) (aged 84)
Other namesAlastair Burnet
  • Television presenter
  • newscaster
  • journalist
Years active1963–1991 (retired)
Employer ITN
Notable credit(s)
ITV News at Ten
Maureen Sinclair(m. 1958)

Sir James William Alexander Burnet (12 July 1928 20 July 2012), known as Alastair Burnet, was a British journalist and broadcaster, best known for his work in news and current affairs programmes, including a long career with ITN as chief presenter of the flagship News at Ten for eighteen years; Sir Robin Day described Burnet as "the booster rocket that put ITN into orbit". [1]

ITN British-based news and content provider

Independent Television News (ITN) is a UK-based television production company. It is made up of two divisions: Broadcast News and ITN Productions. ITN is based in London, with bureaux and offices in Beijing, Brussels, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, New York, Paris, Sydney and Washington DC.

<i>ITV News at Ten</i> Evening news programme, broadcast on ITV

News at Ten is the flagship evening news programme on British television network ITV, produced by ITN and founded by news editor Geoffrey Cox in July 1967. The bulletin was the first permanent 30-minute news broadcast in the United Kingdom, and although initially scheduled for only thirteen weeks due to fears that its length would turn viewers off, the bulletin proved to be highly popular with audiences and became a fixture of the ITV schedule.

Robin Day British broadcaster

Sir Robin Day was an English political journalist and television and radio broadcaster.


Burnet was also a prominent print journalist who edited The Economist and Daily Express .

<i>The Economist</i> English weekly news and international affairs publication

The Economist is an English-language weekly magazine-format newspaper owned by the Economist Group and edited at offices in London. Continuous publication began under its founder James Wilson in September 1843. In 2015, its average weekly circulation was a little over 1.5 million, about half of which were sold in the United States. Pearson PLC held a 50% shareholding via The Financial Times Limited until August 2015. At that time, Pearson sold their share in the Economist. The Agnelli family's Exor paid £287m to raise their stake from 4.7% to 43.4% while the Economist paid £182m for the balance of 5.04m shares which will be distributed to current shareholders. Aside from the Agnelli family, smaller shareholders in the company include Cadbury, Rothschild (21%), Schroder, Layton and other family interests as well as a number of staff and former staff shareholders.

<i>Daily Express</i> Daily middle-market tabloid newspaper in the United Kingdom

The Daily Express is a daily national middle-market tabloid newspaper in the United Kingdom. It is the flagship of Express Newspapers, a subsidiary of Northern & Shell. It was first published as a broadsheet in 1900 by Sir Arthur Pearson. Its sister paper, the Sunday Express, was launched in 1918. In February 2019, it had an average daily circulation of 315,142.

Early life

Burnet was born in Sheffield, West Riding of Yorkshire, to Scottish parents on 12 July 1928. He was educated at the Leys School, a boys' independent school in Cambridge, before reading history at Worcester College, Oxford. [2] [3]

Sheffield City and Metropolitan borough in England

Sheffield is a city and metropolitan borough in South Yorkshire, England. Historically part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, its name derives from the River Sheaf, which runs through the city. With some of its southern suburbs annexed from Derbyshire, the city has grown from its largely industrial roots to encompass a wider economic base. The population of the City of Sheffield is 577,800 (mid-2017 est.) and it is one of the eight largest regional English cities that make up the Core Cities Group. Sheffield is the third-largest English district by population. The metropolitan population of Sheffield is 1,569,000.

West Riding of Yorkshire one of the historic subdivisions of Yorkshire, England

The West Riding of Yorkshire is one of the three historic subdivisions of Yorkshire, England. From 1889 to 1974 the administrative county, County of York, West Riding, was based closely on the historic boundaries. The lieutenancy at that time included the City of York and as such was named West Riding of the County of York and the County of the City of York.

Scottish people ethnic inhabitants of Scotland

The Scottish people or Scots, are a nation and Celtic ethnic group native to Scotland. Historically, they emerged from an amalgamation of two Celtic-speaking peoples, the Picts and Gaels, who founded the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th century. Later, the neighbouring Celtic-speaking Cumbrians, as well as Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons and Norse, were incorporated into the Scottish nation.

Career in journalism

Upon graduating, Burnet began work as a reporter for The Glasgow Herald , before joining The Economist in 1958 as a sub-editor, leader writer, and subsequently, associate editor. He switched to television in 1963, becoming political editor for ITN. While reporting, Burnet became a relief newscaster and worked on ITN's current affairs programmes including Roving Report, Dateline and Dateline Westminster. He was also the main anchor for the ITV network's coverage of the 1964, 1966 and 1970 General Elections and the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. [4] [5]

1964 United Kingdom general election general election held on 15 October 1964

The 1964 United Kingdom general election was held on 15 October 1964, five years after the previous election, and thirteen years after the Conservative Party, first led by Winston Churchill, had entered power. It resulted in the Conservatives, led by its fourth leader, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, narrowly losing the election to the Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson, with Labour having an overall majority of four seats. It resulted in Labour ending its thirteen years in opposition and led to Wilson to become, at the time, the youngest Prime Minister in more than 150 years.

1966 United Kingdom general election general election

The 1966 United Kingdom general election on 31 March 1966 was won convincingly by the Labour Party led by incumbent Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

1970 United Kingdom general election general election

The 1970 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 18 June 1970. It resulted in a surprise victory for the Conservative Party under leader Edward Heath, which defeated the governing Labour Party under Harold Wilson. The Liberal Party, under its new leader Jeremy Thorpe, lost half their seats. The Conservatives, including the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), secured a majority of 31 seats. This general election was the first in which people could vote from the age of 18, after passage of the Representation of the People Act the previous year.

Burnet left ITN in 1965 to rejoin The Economist as editor, but continued broadcasting as a reporter and interviewer for Associated-Rediffusion's weekly current affairs programme This Week . [6] He returned part-time to ITN in 1967 to launch News at Ten (initially as thirteen-week pilot), presenting the first programme on 3 July alongside Andrew Gardner, and also presented the short lived topical interview series Man in the News in 1970. He switched to the BBC in 1972 to report and present for Panorama and Midweek and to anchor coverage of the February and October 1974 General Election programmes, also covering the wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips. He continued to edit The Economist until 1974, [7] where he raised the circulation by 60%. [8] He then joined the Daily Express as editor, but resigned 18 months later.

Associated-Rediffusion British ITV contractor for London and parts of the surrounding counties

Associated-Rediffusion, later Rediffusion London, was the British ITV franchise holder for London and parts of the surrounding counties, on weekdays between 1954 and 29 July 1968. It was the first ITA franchisee to go on air. The company arose from Rediffusion.

Andrew Gardner was a newscaster on Independent Television News in the United Kingdom from 1962 to 1977. He was also one of the original presenters of News at Ten when it began in 1967.

February 1974 United Kingdom general election general election

The February 1974 United Kingdom general election was held on the 28th day of that month. The Labour Party led by former Prime Minister Harold Wilson made moderate gains, but was short of an overall majority. The Conservative Party led by incumbent Edward Heath lost 37 seats, but achieved a slightly higher share of the vote than Labour. This resulted in a hung parliament; Heath resigned when he found himself unable to form a coalition, and Wilson became Prime Minister for a second time. Labour won 301 seats, 17 short of a majority.

He rejoined ITN in June 1976, initially as the main presenter for the newly relaunched early evening bulletin News at 5:45, before returning to News at Ten in March 1978. Four years later, Burnet became an associate editor for the programme and joined the ITN board of directors. He continued to present coverage of political events including the 1979, 1983 and 1987 General Elections, by-elections, budgets and American presidential elections.

1979 United Kingdom general election election for members of the British House of Commons

The 1979 United Kingdom general election was held on 3 May 1979 to elect 635 members to the British House of Commons. The Conservative Party, led by Margaret Thatcher, ousted the incumbent Labour government of James Callaghan with a parliamentary majority of 43 seats. The election was the first of four consecutive election victories for the Conservative Party, and Thatcher became the United Kingdom's and Europe's first elected female head of government.

1983 United Kingdom general election election for members of the British House of Commons

The 1983 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 9 June 1983. It gave the Conservative Party under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher the most decisive election victory since that of the Labour Party in 1945.

1987 United Kingdom general election election for members of the British House of Commons

The 1987 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday, 11 June 1987, to elect 650 members to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. The election was the third consecutive general election victory for the Conservative Party, and second landslide under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, who became the first Prime Minister since the Earl of Liverpool in 1820 to lead a party into three successive electoral victories.

Burnet also presented coverage of the royal family, commentating on the weddings of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson in 1986 and other state occasions. He also wrote and presented several Royal documentaries including In Person: The Prince and Princess of Wales, A Royal Day and The Royal Family in Scotland. Outside of ITN, he was also a presenter and interviewer for Thames Television's TV Eye (for a time, a substitute for This Week).

In February 1990, Burnet resigned from the ITN board amid a dispute over the future ownership of the company, during which his own proposals to restructure the organisation were rejected. He retired from ITN as newscaster and associate editor 18 months later, presenting his final edition of News at Ten on 29 August 1991.


Following his retirement, he did not make any further appearances on television or write for the press. In part, this was because of his being diagnosed with senile dementia, following which the requirement for twenty four hour nursing resulted in his having to reside in the Beatrice Place Nursing Home in Kensington, London. His condition meant that he felt comfortable only with close friends, including his wife, and former ITN News director, Diana Edwards-Jones. Burnet died peacefully in the early hours of 20 July 2012, at his nursing home in Kensington, where he had been living following a series of strokes. [9] [10] [11] Paying tribute, Andrew Neil referred to Burnet as "Britain's greatest broadcaster". [12]

In his will he left £2 million, the majority of which was bequeathed to his wife. [13]

The satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image portrayed Burnet as a cringing, fawning royalist ("lick, lick, smarm, smarm"), forever trying to suck up to the nearest available member of the Royal Family; [14] one episode ended with the Burnet puppet singing a song about his love for the Queen Mother (before being pushed aside for Sandy Gall). The satirical magazine Private Eye referred to him as "Arslicker Burnet". [14]

Burnet was a supporter of Scottish football clubs Rangers and Partick Thistle. [15]


Burnet was knighted in the 1984 New Year Honours "for services to journalism and broadcasting". [16]

He also won numerous awards, including the BAFTA Richard Dimbleby award three times in 1966, 1970 and 1979.

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  1. "Alastair Burnet". 29 July 2012. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  2. "Worcester College, Oxford: Students/Graduates". Freebase. Archived from the original on 23 April 2010. Retrieved 9 May 2010.
  3. "Obituary: Sir Alastair Burnet". BBC News. 20 July 2012.
  4. "Alastair Stewart Biography". Manchester Evening News. 24 October 2007. Retrieved 9 May 2010.
  5. "Television Timeline: News at Ten: 3/7/67". BBC Four. Retrieved 9 May 2010.
  6. Burnet, Alastair, BFI entry]
  7. Stephen Hugh Jones (26 February 2006). "So what's the secret of 'The Economist'?". The Independent on Sunday. London. Archived from the original on 4 June 2010. Retrieved 9 May 2010.
  8. "Alastair Burnet". The Economist . 28 July 2012. Retrieved 30 August 2012.
  9. "Sir Alastair Burnet dies aged 84". ITV News. 20 July 2012. Archived from the original on 21 July 2012.
  10. "Sir Alastair Burnet dies at 84". BBC News. 20 July 2012.
  11. "Sir Alastair Burnet dies aged 84". 20 July 2012.[ permanent dead link ]
  12. "Alistair Burnet 'was Britain's greatest broadcaster'". The Daily Telegraph. London. 20 July 2012. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
  13. "Alastair Burnet leaves £100k to his 'dear friend' Diana". Daily Mail . London. 27 April 2013. Retrieved 27 April 2013.
  14. 1 2 Hayward, Anthony (20 July 2012). "Sir Alastair Burnet". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
  15. "Sir Alastair Burnet". The Telegraph. London. 20 July 2012. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
  16. "No. 49583". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1983. p. 1.
Media offices
Preceded by
Ian Trethowan
Political Editor of ITN
Next known title holder:
Julian Haviland
Preceded by
Donald Tyerman
Editor of The Economist
Succeeded by
Andrew Knight
Preceded by
Ian McColl
Editor of The Daily Express
March 1974 – 1976
Succeeded by
Roy Wright