Mike Burns obituary: Popular journalist who helped transform RTÉ’s news output

A larger-than-life individual and significant figure in the history of Irish broadcasting

Former taoiseach Enda Kenny speaks on the phone of Mike Burns. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Former taoiseach Enda Kenny speaks on the phone of Mike Burns. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Mike Burns
Born: January 17th, 1937
Died: February 26th, 2021

Mike Burns, a significant figure in the history of Irish broadcasting, has died in his Dún Laoghaire home. Variously described as a giant of broadcasting, a great gentleman of journalism and the most networked reporter of his generation, Burns held pivotal roles in RTÉ radio and television, which culminated in his job as RTÉ’s London Editor in the 1980s.

He covered key historical events including Bobby Kennedy’s funeral in New York City, the fall of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and, with fellow RTÉ journalist Sean Duignan, the outbreak of violence and the deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland following the Derry civil rights marches in 1968.

In the late 1960s as RTÉ’s first Editor of News Features, he introduced three new programmes to RTÉ – the News at 1.30 (now The News at One), This Week and World Report – all of which remain the backbone of RTÉ radio news output. By adding live news reports to early radio news broadcasts, Burns transformed news coverage at the station. Burns won a Jacobs award in 1969 for his work in news and current affairs.

Kevin Healy, Gerald Barry, Olivia O’Leary, Kevin O’Kelly and Dick Hogan were among those who worked with him during those early broadcasting days.

Sean Duignan, his close colleague and friend for more than five decades, said, “He was inspired by some of the British programmes he admired and decided he was going to put on current affairs programmes that would be at least as good as the British programmes. I think he succeeded in that.”

With a keen eye for a story and the determination and fearlessness to see it through, Burns was, at heart, a news reporter. His extraordinary ability to engage with people from diverse political, social or religious backgrounds meant that he was well liked everywhere and made lifelong friends - and contacts - wherever he went.

When working as RTÉ’s London Editor, he enjoyed unique access to the corridors of power in London and Dublin, perplexing officials on both sides who soon learned they might as well live with it. Under his leadership and with fellow broadcasters, Leo Enright and Brian O’Connell, the RTÉ London bureau punched far above its weight. In the United States, he had good relations with powerbrokers both on Republican and Democratic sides. His reliability, trustworthiness and generosity of spirit were the grounds for his universal popularity. Sceptical but not cynical, he expected high standards from those who worked with him.

Origins in journalism

Mike Burns was born in Leicester in England, the only son of four children of Martin and Bridgit Burns. The family moved to live on a farm in Ballintubber, County Roscommon when he was a child.

He played the saxophone as a young man and was a founding member of the showband the Premier Acres in the 1950s. He got his first reporting job with the Roscommon Champion. Soon after, he moved to north-west England to work on the Sandbach Chronicle where a fellow reporter Michael Parkinson went on to make his name in broadcasting. While there, he used to fly back to Dublin at the weekends to work on Saturday shifts for the Sunday Independent. He also worked for a time as foreign correspondent for the Daily Mail.

In the early 1960s, Burns returned to Ireland to work for the Sunday Independent and the Sunday Review. In 1962, he began working for the new RTÉ guide when the station was still based in the GPO in O’Connell St. While with the RTÉ Guide, he was sent to interview The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard and other UK chart toppers when they arrived in Ireland. He soon moved to the RTÉ newsroom where one of his early assignments was – on the eve of John F Kennedy’s state funeral – to report from the Kennedy’s clan’s ancestral home of Dunganstown, County Wexford.

Burns intrepid skills to follow a story – and to help colleagues do likewise – are legendary. On one occasion, he needed to get himself and his crew to a trouble spot from Florida and hitched a lift on an Air America flight, the passenger and cargo airline covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency from 1950 to 1976. Fellow journalists often remarked on his ability to get last-minute tickets to everything from All-Ireland GAA finals to rock concerts through his limitless contacts.

After taking early retirement from RTÉ in the early 1990s, Burns became the media officer for the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and revitalised that organisation, which promotes co-operation between politicians in Britain and Ireland. He held this role for several years and on St Patrick’s Day in 2004, he received an MBE from Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, acknowledging his services to UK-Irish relations throughout his career.

He went on to set up a successful media consultancy and with his wife, Lynette Fegen (who died in 2001), he published Ireland’s first media directory. In later years, Burns was a prominent member of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) and regularly hosted a table of friends at AEJ lunches. He also did consultancy work for Tony O’Reilly and Michael O’Leary among others.

A larger-than-life individual, Burns was renowned for his hospitality, generosity and kindness to friends and family, and to those who had fallen on hard times. He was also a great encourager and mentor to new talented journalists. He remained in contact with a circle of friends across politics, sports, business, arts and the media until his death.

Mike Burns is survived by his sisters, Margaret (Joyce) and Norah (Stewart), nieces and nephews and his first wife, Bernadette. He is pre-deceased by his wife, Lynette and his sister, Mary.