BY ANDREW WOODHOUSE
Mark Colvin (1952-2017) was an Australian journalist and broadcaster based in Sydney. He was the presenter of PM, the flagship Australian radio current affairs programs on the ABC Radio network for twenty years, between 1997 to 2017.
His mellifluous voice rang through the nation, and was particularly heard in Canberra. When he came on air, my radio bristled with the latest news and an expectation that a great story was about to break forth.
His interview technique was both subtle and ferocious. His laser-like questions were probing and perceptive. He asked the hard questions and cut straight to the jugular. In another time he could have been a top criminal Barrister and QC. After all, he was an Oxford graduate, BA(hons) in English Literature
“He really cared about quality journalism,” said his compatriot and ABC TV presenter, Leigh Sales, adding, “he loved Scrabble and fresh figs.”
He began employment in January 1975 at the ABC’s rock music station Double Jay (2JJ, now known as triple J) as one of the foundation staff, having initially worked as a cadet journalist. With strong foreign language skills in French, Italian and Spanish, he was then posted to the Canberra bureau and appointed a television news producer. A year later, he was one of the first reporters on Nationwide.
At 28 years old, in 1980, he was appointed as foreign correspondent in London, and travelled to cover major stories including the American hostage crisis in Tehran and the rise of Solidarity in Poland. Colvin returned to Australia in 1983 and initially was a reporter on both AM and PM, before agitating for the establishment of a midday news and current affairs radio program. He became the founding presenter of The World Today on ABC radio. The following year, Colvin went to Brussels as Europe correspondent, and covered the events right across the continent as the Cold War began to thaw and the Gorbachev era began the process that would lead to the lifting of the Iron Curtain.
In 1994, he was sent by the 7.30 Report to Africa to cover the unfolding tragedy in Rwanda. Travelling via Zaire, he witnessed an extensive human tragedy, in which about a million refugees were living in camps with poor sanitation and hygiene, with cholera and dysentery commonplace.
Consequently, he was diagnosed with granulomatosis with polyangiitis, a rare auto-immune disease causing inflammation of the blood vessels, which nearly killed him. After several months in hospital, during his convalescence he became aware of a side effect of the treatment: his hip joints collapsed and both hips had to be replaced. In December 2012, Colvin received a kidney transplant from a living donor. Colvin and the hospital and staff allowed the process to be recorded for television. The kidney was named “Rupert”, after Rupert Murdoch.
During 2010, Colvin worked to raise the profile of organ donation through interviews with a number of media agencies including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Drum, The 7.30 Report, and Life Matters. The story of his kidney donation was even the subject of a stage play titled ‘Mark Colvin’s Kidney’ by playwright Tommy Murphy.
In 2016 Colvin released his autobiography “Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son”, an incredible story of a father waging a secret war against communism during the Cold War, while his son came of age as a journalist during the tumultuous Whitlam and Fraser years and later embarked on the risky career as a foreign correspondent.
His engrossing memoire takes you inside the coverage of major news events and gently navigates the complexity of his father’s double life. Beautifully written, it has the musicality and architectonic structure of a magnificent Bach fugue. After a twenty year struggle with are auto-immune disease, he died in Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney last Thursday morning.
Through his second most prolific form of broadcast, Twitter, Colvin bid his own public a final farewell. In the hours after his death a tweet was sent from his account to his 103,000 followers seemingly saying goodbye noting simply that “It’s all been bloody marvellous.”
Andrew Woodhouse is President, Potts Point and Kings Cross Heritage and Residents’ Society