A “hugely respected” former regional daily editor has died after a car crash in the Middle East at the age of 64.
Belfast-based daily the News Letter splashed this morning on the death of Austin Hunter, who edited the newspaper between 2004 and 2006.
Austin, who also worked for the BBC during the Troubles, was on a business trip to Bahrain when he was hit by a car on Saturday evening.
Current News Letter editor Alistair Bushe has paid tribute to a “hugely respected and well liked figure” in Northern Irish media.
In an editorial, he wrote: “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.”
Born into a unionist family, Austin began his 45-year media career as a reporter for the Strabane Weekly News and Tyrone Constitution before going on to cover some of the worst days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland for the BBC.
Later he worked in public relations for the BBC, the police, and the Orange Order.
Austin had been in Bahrain working for the not-for-profit organisation Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas.
He is survived by wife Jean, son and former News Letter journalist Simon and daughter Rachael.
His family said in a statement: “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 his editorial, Alistair concluded: “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.”