Northern Ireland news

Tributes paid to journalist Austin Hunter killed in Middle East road crash

Austin Hunter (64) was knocked down and killed in a road crash in Bahrain 
Simon Cunningham and David Young, Press Association

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

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.

A former editor of the Belfast News Letter, he also 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 RUC was replaced by the 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 and as a PR consultant for the Royal Black Institution for eight years.

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.

Austin Hunter's family said in astatement, they were "absolutely devastated at the loss of a loving husband, father and grandfather". Picture by Pacemaker 

Irish News editor Noel Doran said: "Austin was a very respected reporter with the BBC and went on to become a distinguished editor of the News Letter.

"He was a vastly experienced journalist, with a calm, measured and completely professional approach throughout his career, and his death comes as an enormous shock. The sympathies of everyone at The Irish News are with his family."

First Minister Arlene Foster was also among those paying tribute.

"Shocked and deeply saddened to hear of the death of Austin Hunter," said the Democratic Unionist 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."

Leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party 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."

Graeme McCammon, the chief executive of NI-CO, described Mr Hunter as a "highly valued member of the team".

"We will remember him for his outstanding talent, principles, compassion and his commitment to change," he said.

"Austin was recognised and respected worldwide as an expert in his field and his knowledge and opinions were greatly valued by all who knew and worked with him.

"Austin promoted change and reform in many countries and he will be long remembered - not only by his colleagues at NI-CO, but by everyone he met and worked with throughout the world."

Mr McCammon said Mr Hunter was in Bahrain advising on the implementation of youth justice reforms.

"He passionately believed in promoting these reforms to introduce new legislation and to protect the rights of children," he added.

"Austin's professionalism, his positive attitude, and his determination to succeed, together with his amiable personality, will be forever missed by all of the NI-CO team.

"NI-CO offer our sincerest condolences, and our thoughts and prayers are with Austin's wife Jean, and his family at this very sad time."

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he was saddened by Mr Hunter's death.

"He was a very good journalist and nice man," he said.

"My sympathy to his wife and family."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, who when he was a broadcaster worked alongside Mr Hunter, said he had earned a deserved reputation for solid and considered journalism during times of huge tension and controversy in Northern Ireland.

"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," he said.

"My thoughts are with the Hunter family at this shocking time."

The PSNI's current head of corporate communications Liz Young said: "We are saddened at the tragic news of Austin's death.

"Austin brought a wealth of skill, professionalism and experience to the organisation during his time in the media and PRr department. Our thoughts are with his family at this very sad time."

SDLP West Belfast MLA Alex Attwood said the death of Mr Hunter was "truly terrible news".

"Austin Hunter was a very well regarded and highly engaging figure in the world of journalism for decades," he said.

“The SDLP wishes to send condolences to his family and to his journalism colleagues among whom he was valued.”

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