Broadcaster Mark Colvin, who died yesterday aged sixty-five, is described by friends and colleagues as “precociously talented” and “a champion of radio” who “wrote up to audiences, not down to them.” The veteran of TV and radio current affairs died at the Royal Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, surrounded by his family and some of the colleagues he has worked with at the ABC over several decades.
“I’ve been expecting this moment for twenty years,” Jim Middleton said yesterday afternoon as he was getting off a plane from Sydney, where he was with Colvin when he died.
The two men first met in the mid 1970s, when Colvin joined ABC Radio as a cadet reporter. Middleton remembers the new recruit as “probably the most precociously talented young journalist I’ve ever come across.” He watched Colvin rise through the ranks, initially at the ABC’s youth radio network, Double J, where he produced important radio documentaries on complex issues, including the aftermath of the British atomic testing at Maralinga.
In what Middleton describes as “some of the earliest reporting on what was later uncovered by the royal commission into the UK government’s misbehaviours,” Colvin recounted how the British had covered up the effects of the tests on the Indigenous people and military personnel near the site.
At about this time, Colvin met reporter Matt Peacock, who was then producing groundbreaking stories about asbestos for Radio National. “Colvin came up to me in the Science Unit and we cut up the asbestos series that I was making into little soundbites with music for Double J,” says Peacock. “I later found out that this caused James Hardie much consternation because Double J had a much bigger audience than RN.” Peacock recalls that when asbestos was discovered at the ABC’s Gore Hill studios, Colvin “was the man rounding up all the other journos for a meeting in the studio where the ABC had to explain itself.”
Despite his youth, Colvin was quickly seconded to Four Corners, where he mastered the craft of long-form television current affairs. “He was pretty young and inexperienced, but obviously they saw something in him,” says Middleton.
As good as he became on TV, it was on radio that long-time ABC colleague Quentin Dempster believes Colvin really excelled. “It’s very powerful, radio; you inform yourself and the listeners by your questions but also your questions are framed by the extra research and reading that you’ve done.”
Dempster says Colvin mastered the subject matter, working within punishing deadlines to become so well informed that he furthered the discussion, rather than merely re-airing what was already in the public domain. “Anyone who is an expert on foreign policy, or what have you, could tell that Colvin was definitely trying to tell you something that you didn’t already know,” says Dempster, “and that’s a qualitative difference in that sort of broadcasting. What comes through for the audience is that you are writing up to the audience, not writing down to them. You’re informing yourself and in the process you’re informing them.”
Colvin became the ABC’s London correspondent at just twenty-eight and immediately found himself covering horrendous stories, including the deaths of the American soldiers attempting to rescue US hostages. “He was there in Tehran when the stinking bodies were brought back and unveiled to the foreign press,” says Middleton.
He went on to become the first presenter of ABC Radio’s The World Today, and later returned to Europe as the ABC’s Brussels correspondent. He also developed a deep interest in Africa, covering “famines and fights” in Sudan and Ethiopia, and the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa. In 1994 he went to Rwanda, where he contracted the rare auto-immune disease that led to his years of illness.
“A lot of us wondered whether he would ever make it home but he did, and that’s when he took over the helm of PM and stayed doing that for the rest of his working life,” says Middleton.
Peacock says that Colvin’s dedication went deeper than just journalism. “He was always meticulous and fussy about the facts, but he also had a burning loyalty to public broadcasting and the ethic of fearless independent journalism, and also the survival of the ABC when it was attacked.” He says that Colvin “was always one to man the barricades, and that never diminished, even until just recently. He’s always been concerned that the ABC survives and is a force to be reckoned with.”
I saw this passion during my own time as a media reporter with the ABC and the Australian. Colvin was anxious to make sure that the public was well-informed about the ABC so that it understood what was at stake when cuts or punitive restructures were imminent. As the presenter of a flagship program, though, he understood that he could only say so much. Nevertheless, he maintained a very public double life through his ubiquitous tweets as @Colvinius, covering everything from world affairs to punctuation.
Dempster says Mark Colvin will be remembered for the depth of insight he brought to his interviews. “Journalism can be deeply superficial and it’s the thinker in the practitioner that makes all the difference to the listening experience. In the digital revolution there may be a debate about the future of radio but I think if you get a skilled practitioner of the quality of Mark, then radio will always be with us. He was a champion of radio.”
Middleton says he will remember Colvin as a curious outsider, who considered himself an Australian despite his English schooling. “He and I used to joke about this: a boy with an Oxford education. His mother was from the Western District of Victoria, but he had only come to Australia for occasional visits. He had a curiosity about the exotic world that Australia was, and that carried through into everything he did.”
“There was a ferocious desire to find stuff out and express it with a great deal of elegance and depth,” adds Middleton. “He just had all the skills, and more, that a broadcast journalist could want; whether it was as a presenter on PM or on that most difficult of task in long-form journalism, as a reporter on Four Corners.” •
• Read an extract from Mark Colvin’s memoir, Light and Shadow.