Former Daily Express editor and ITN newscaster Sir Alastair Burnet has died at the age of 84.
The presenter, who last hosted the nightly ITN bulletin almost 21 years ago, died following a series of strokes.
Sir Alastair was also a trusted face and voice for national occasions, anchoring several general elections and the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales.
The broadcaster Andrew Neil called him “one of the greatest journalists of his generation”.
A statement on behalf of Sir Alastair’s family said: “He passed away peacefully in the middle of the night at the Beatrice Place Nursing Home in Kensington, where he was being cared for after suffering several strokes.”
Sir Alastair also had a distinguished career as a print journalist, editing publications such as The Economist and The Daily Express.
Although remembered for his ITV work during the early and later stages of his career, he spent a short period at the BBC working on Panorama and fronted the two general election programmes of 1974.
As well as his many election broadcasts for ITV as a reporter and presenter, he also led ITN’s coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969.
Neil said: “Alastair was one of the greatest journalists of his generation, as much at home in print as TV news and current affairs, where he was a legendary figure as Britain’s premier newscaster and anchorman.
“He played a pivotal role in the rise of ITN as political editor, interviewer and newscaster; he launched ITN’s News At Ten, Britain’s first dual-anchored, half-hour newscast – the most successful newscast in British broadcast history; and he will always be remembered for presenting historic live events, from numerous election nights – on BBC and ITV – to US space launches to major royal events.
“He will also always be recalled by family, friends and colleagues for his unparalleled professionalism, humour and gentlemanly kindness, especially to journalists starting out on their careers.”
Sir Alastair will have a private funeral but a memorial service will also be organised at a later date.
The Sheffield-born presenter, who studied at Oxford, also became known for the documentaries he fronted about members of the Royal Family, particularly the Prince and Princess of Wales.
However, the sympathetic portrayals led to Sir Alastair being featured in the ITV’s satirical puppet show Spitting Image as a gushing, obsequious royalist. The magazine Private Eye lampooned him in a similar fashion.
But he had an unswerving ability to capture a moment in words, demonstrated during his coverage of the Moon landing when he told viewers: “There it is, the old Moon – the one the cow jumped over, the one the poets wrote about, the one that lovers made love to. And from now on, it’s going to be rather a different one.”
John Hardie, chief executive of ITN, said: “ITN stands on the shoulders of giants, none greater than Sir Alastair Burnet. He defined newscasting for a generation and his influence is still clearly evident today,” he said.
“He set the bar to a standard that has never been surpassed and perhaps not even equalled. Sir Alastair will be sorely missed by many here at ITN, but his legacy lives on.”
Sir Alastair – who was among those adding their voices to a campaign for a return of News At Ten when it was given a new time by ITV – was keen for the news to reflect the stories which were of general interest rather than just for the chattering classes.
Colleagues referred to how he would talk about news which the “plain folk” would be discussing the following day.
Helen Boaden, director of BBC News, said today: “ITN has lost a hugely dedicated colleague whose energy and drive were unique. His passion for the story always shone through and television journalism is the poorer without him.”
Sir Alastair’s friend, Alastair Stewart, who first worked with him on national news in 1976, said today: “He was simply the best we ever had – the best we’ll ever have.
“He was my friend and mentor – he was everything I ever aspired to be. Intellectually a giant and yet the kindest and most generous of men.”