Mark Colvin, who passed away today aged 65, was a journalistic force of nature, perhaps the most precociously talented of his generation.
He joined the ABC in 1974, a leather-jacketed, motorbike-riding, Gauloises-smoking devotee of the best of modern music, popular culture and the avant garde. He entered the lower depths of the ABC’s News Division like a youthful escapee from an Evelyn Waugh novel.
At Double JJ (Triple JJJ’s precursor) in 1975 and 1976, his longform stories on nuclear testing at Maralinga in South Australia and its consequences for the Indigenous community and service personnel were groundbreaking as well as pathfinding. It was to be nearly another decade before the misbehaviour of the UK government would be brought to account by a Hawke government royal commission.
Mark always insisted he was Australian despite the Oxford accent. But he brought with him the curiosity of the outsider, the observer – possibly a consequence of his rootless youth in Austria, Malaya and the UK.
Mark was still in his 20s when he was assigned to Four Corners. Such a prestigious post was characteristically occupied by journalists of greater age and experience.
Before he was 30 he was posted to London as an ABC foreign correspondent. No sooner was he on station than he was angling to go to Tehran to report the hostage crisis involving the detention of US diplomats from their embassy, ransacked by thuggish enthusiasts of the Iranian revolution. He was present when the ghoulish zealots backing Ayatollah Khomeini’s new theocracy displayed the stinking bodies of the US casualties from Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated attempt to free the hostages.
As foreign correspondents, he and I reported the last throes of the Cold War, Reagan and Gorbachev, from either side of the Atlantic.
We came together for G7 meetings and the first summit in Geneva between the two leaders. There was much laughter, for example, as we watched from an office tower in Bonn as US and French security agents threatened to come to blows over whose president should have precedence.
Mark held Africa in special thrall, whether it be reporting the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s or the horrors of famine and fighting which afflict much of the north of that great continent to this day.
He was caught in Khartoum when his son William was born in London, but managed to get a scratchy telephone line out of a Sudanese hotel to hear William’s first cries of life. I still cherish a copy of Mory Kante’s Akwaba Beach, a cassette copy of which Mark had played repeatedly on assignment in Namibia.
Mory Kante’s Akwaba Beach.So, it was no surprise that 1994 should find him in Rwanda amid the grim scenes of communal violence. The disease he had the misfortune to contract there ravaged his body, but certainly not his mind nor his determination to adventure into the future.
The disease and its terrible consequences would have brought down a lesser person, but Mark remained indomitable and optimistic through years of crippling pain.
His thirst for the new was undiminished even as his flesh and especially his bones failed him. Dialysis, for example, was a chance to discover the opportunities of the emerging digital world. He was an early adopter of Twitter – not to troll, but alive to its intellectual opportunities.
He was quicker than most reporters of his generation to apprehend the journalistic opportunities of social media. During his 20 years at the helm of PM he took younger reporters under his wing, encouraging them to use social media to uncover one scoop after another as the Arab Spring unfolded.
I had no finer friend in journalism than Mark. We had plenty of high times over the decades – whether it be arguing in a Darlinghurst pub over the relative merits of the British and European legal systems, the consequences for democracy of the post-modern populism of the 21st century, pressing the case for journalistic objectivity and fairness at Double JJ, or drinking in the glorious clatter of our Sydney musical faves, Radio Birdman.
Their home and ours, the Oxford Funhouse, may be long gone, a relic of the Sydney of the 1970s. But their furious spirit, their energy and, yes, their optimism, imbued the rest of Mark’s work and life.
Authors: Jim Middleton, Vice Chancellor's Fellow, University of Melbourne