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Obituary: Austin Hunter's compassion and integrity shone through the darkest of our troubled times

Respected media man won't be forgotten, writes Laurence White

It was a measure of the man that was Austin Hunter that his sudden and tragic death brought a flood of heartfelt tributes from a wide range of sources. These include the organisations he worked for, the politicians, including the First and Deputy First Ministers, with whom he came in contact and not least his fellow journalists.

All were unstinting in their praise of Mr Hunter (64) who throughout his journalistic career tempered his professional quest for news with an empathy for those he was interviewing, often in the most trying of circumstances.

He began as a reporter with the Strabane Weekly News in his native Tyrone (he was educated at Omagh Academy) but made his mark with a wider audience as a radio and television reporter with the BBC in Belfast. During his 10 years with the organisation he covered many harrowing stories during the height of the Troubles.

Senior colleagues at the BBC, commenting in the wake of his death, all highlighted his journalistic ability but also his compassion. He is remembered for being one of the most decent and likeable members of his profession, always willing to help colleagues in what can be a very cut-throat business. He also served for several years in a senior role in the BBC's Press office.

Mr Hunter showed a natural ability in this sphere serving as a director of media and public relations with the RUC at the time when the reform of policing in Northern Ireland was being implemented. He joined the organisation in 2001.

The phasing out of the RUC and its replacement by the PSNI required a deft public relations strategy and he managed it with aplomb. He also faced a public relations crisis when the then Chief Constable of the RUC Ronnie Flanagan was accused by Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan of a lack of leadership in the hunt for the Omagh bombers. The Chief Constable said he would not only resign but publicly commit suicide if he thought such criticism was fair.

Those were obviously difficult days for Mr Hunter but he is remembered by journalists from throughout the UK as a man who never declined to take a call or to give a considered and reasoned response to difficult enquiries.

His expertise was recognised by awards both for his work at the BBC Press office and with the RUC and PSNI.

In 2004, he became editor of the News Letter and by the following year had not only stabilised a newspaper with a falling readership but had achieved its highest circulation for eight years.

A senior colleague at the newspaper, Billy Kennedy, remembers him as an editor who got the best out of his staff by encouraging and mentoring them and described him as engaging, subtle and warm.

He left the newspaper in 2006 to re-enter the world of public relations, working chiefly with the loyal orders which at the time were attempting to put a more positive face to the Orange and Royal Black institutions.

It was to his credit that both institutions were able to engage with the wider public and put their activities in more considered context.

He was also involved in a number of other public relations exercises and it was on one of those - with non-profit organisation Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas, advising on the implementation of youth justice reforms in Bahrain - that he met his untimely death.

He is survived by his wife Jean, son Simon and daughter Rachael and a number of grandchildren. For many years he lived in Comber, Co Down, where he was an elder in First Comber Presbyterian Church.

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