Taoiseach leads tributes to ‘giant of broadcasting’ Mike Burns

Former RTÉ London Editor who received MBE for services to UK-Irish relations has died

President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Micheál Martin have led the tributes to former RTÉ journalist Mike Burns who has died aged 84.

Mr Higgins noted that many of the journalist’s colleagues had hailed his “geniality and the ease with which he engaged both with people and with complex issues” and said it was a view “shared by all those who knew him”.

He added that, as a journalist, Burns had been “in touch with all aspects of the Irish diaspora”, something demonstrated “by his coverage of the Kennedy funerals and later in his work in London where he showed a deep respect for people of different views”.

Describing him as "a giant of broadcasting", Mr Martin cited his analysis of the Troubles and his work on UK-Irish relations saying it had "made a real difference that will endure".

Born in Leicester in 1937, Burns and his family moved to Roscommon when he was a child. He flirted with the idea of a life in show business and was one of the early members of showband the Premier Aces before changing career path in the early 1960s, switching first to print journalism.

He started out down that path with the Sunday Independent before joining RTÉ as a writer with what was then known as the RTV Guide.

He quickly moved on to the newsroom and one early assignment saw him report from the Kennedy ancestral home in Wexford on the eve of US president John F Kennedy's funeral in November 1963.

He also reported on the funeral service of Robert Kennedy in St Patrick’s Cathedral New York five years later.

He met the Rolling Stones off the Belfast to Dublin train and famously asked Mick Jagger if his long hair made him look like a girl and whether or not he would consider a crew cut. Jagger answered a firm no to both questions. He also quizzed a young and bemused Cliff Richard about how much money he made.

But it was hard news that made the journalist’s name.

He became RTÉ’s first Editor of News Features and launched the News at 1.30 (now the RTÉ News at One), World Report and This Week. All three remain central to the radio station’s news output.

He was subsequently appointed RTÉ Radio’s head of news before returning to a broadcasting role as RTÉ’s London Editor. In 2004, he received an MBE for services to UK-Irish relations.

RTÉ's managing director of news and current affairs Jon Williams said he was hugely saddened by Burns's death, referring to him as "one of the greatest generation" at RTÉ. "He transformed RTÉ's journalism," he tweeted.

UTV Political Editor Ken Reid said Burns was "a brilliant RTÉ London Editor. He had unsurpassed Westminster contacts and opened many an important door for me. He became a firm family friend, always in good form. A legend. RIP."

Former RTÉ director of news, Joe Mulholland, described him as "an extraordinary networker. He had an amazing list of contacts. People trusted him. He was a news person at heart because he always loved being first with the story."

A statement from the office of Press Ombudsman noted that he was head of RTÉ News at a critical time in Anglo-Irish relationships adding that he had “brought a wisdom and an understanding to his difficult role”.

The Irish Ambassador to the US, Daniel Mulhall, said he was "a fine journalist and a good man – and always excellent company".

Former colleagues also paid tribute, with David Davin-Power describing him as a “broadcaster who revolutionised RTÉ news, a lifelong mentor and a convivial pal”.

RTÉ journalist Ingrid Miley said he was a "fine journalist" who gave her her "big break when he picked me and six others for a trainee journalist course in 1984. Mike was always available to advise younger journalists on career paths."

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast