Sir Alastair Burnet


IT has been a bad couple of months for former editors of the Daily Express. First we lost Bob Edwards and now we mourn Sir Alastair Burnet.

With a few exceptions, Daily Express editors form an inglorious cavalcade but of the 12 editors I served under, Sir Alastair was the least successful. Mind you, the competition wasn't that great.


That said, Burnet was one of the most generous and kind men ever to sit in the editor's chair at 120 Fleet Street. He was at the helm for only 16 months but during that time the paper lost 340,000 copies in circulation. 

The trouble was, he never really seemed to show much interest in editing the paper after the first few months in the job, a trait shown by many of his successors. His office was overlooked by the Press Association building and journalists there used to delight in watching through the window as Burnet downed large whisky after large whisky while the rest of us, who did not have such a good view, put the paper together.

Locking yourself away, often with a bottle, is something of a tradition for Express editors. The pattern is that for the first few months they eagerly put their imprint on the paper, even sitting on the backbench at busy times. Then, when the inevitable decline in circulation occurs, and managements start complaining, they become more insular and retire to their offices, refusing to come out and face the music. Burnet did this after only a few months.

My father, my brother and my mentor. Three most important men in my life. Now all gone

It seems wrong to carp. Andrew Neil, who was asked by the Burnet family to announce Sir Alastair's death, described him as 'one of the greatest journalists of his generation'. He tweeted: 'My father, my brother and my mentor, Alastair Burnet. Three most important men in my life. Now all gone.'

Burnet came to the Express in 1974 with excellent credentials. He had been editor of The Economist for nine years during which he had increased the magazine's circulation from 70,000 to more than 120,000. Sadly, despite his prodigious talents as a journalist, he was unable to do the same for the Express. 

He took the job at the Express reluctantly, after it had been turned down by David English and Larry Lamb. Max Aitken must have been very persuasive.

So another one bites the dust: Bob Edwards died in May aged 86, now we have lost Alastair Burnet, who was 84.

They were both great characters and those who worked with them mourn their loss.

Andrew Neil's tribute in The Spectator

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre