ABC broadcasting legend Mark Colvin has died, aged 65

Mark Colvin. Source: ABC

Mark Colvin, the sonorous voice of current affairs on ABC Radio’s flagship PM program for 20 years, has died. He was 65.

The English–born, Oxford–educated former foreign correspondent began his career at the ABC as a cadet shortly after arriving in Australia and then a year later, became one of the founding members of a new youth station Double Jay (now Triple J), in 1975.

Colvin would go on to be a pioneer in a golden age of broadcasting, becoming the ABC’s London–based foreign correspondent aged 28 during the turmoil of Tehran hostage crisis and the rise of Nobel Peace prize winner Lech Walęsa’s Solidarnosc movement in Poland.

He returned to Australia in 1983 and became founding presenter of The World Today on ABC Radio.

Colvin became host of PM from 1997, having contracted a rare auto-immune disease that nearly claimed his life while on assignment in Africa in 1994. The illness would later lead to the need for a life saving kidney transplant. The story of how that came to be is remarkable in its own way.

To his many fans on Twitter, he was simply @Colvinius. After he died, a tweet was posted on his profile, saying: “It’s all been bloody marvellous.”

Colvin died in hospital surrounded by family this morning. In a statement, the family said:

Today we lost our beloved Mark.

The family would like to thank the doctors and nurses at the Prince of Wales hospital, as well as the community, the ABC, his friends and colleagues, who have stood by him and supported his career and life.

At this moment of grief, we request the family be left to mourn in private.

Mark has asked that donations to the Prince of Wales Hospital Trust be made, in place of flowers.

The ABC called him “a giant of Australian journalism” who was “admired and respected by colleagues and audiences alike for his formidable intellect, sharp wit and absolute integrity”.

Managing director Michelle Guthrie said the organisation “will miss him enormously”.

“For many Australians, Mark’s steady and measured voice as host of PM brought them the essential news of the day and kept them informed about events of national and international importance,” she said.

ABC news director Gaven Morris said Colvin “leaves an unfillable void as a journalist, a colleague and a friend”.

“He was an important part of the ABC community as a mentor and teacher to young reporters and as a voice of wisdom and experience to many older ones. Our reporters and producers felt strengthened by his presence in the newsroom and emboldened by the sound of his voice on our airwaves,” he said.

After a three year stint 2JJ, Colvin spent a year in Canberra as a TV news producer before becoming a founding reporter on Nationwide, a national TV current affairs program where he worked alongside Jenny Brockie, Paul Murphy and Andrew Olle.

Mark Colvin in his younger days. Source: ABC

The multi-linguist and polymath then returned to the road as the ABC’s Europe correspondent as Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev brought down the Iron Curtain. That meant, among other things, broadcasting live from the history-making Reagan-Gorbachev summits in Geneva and Reykjavik.

He returned to Australia during its bicentennial to spend five years as a reporter on Four Corners, before heading back to London as a TV current affairs correspondent who covered the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far right National Front in France (his daughter, Marine, is the recently defeated presidential candidate).

The illness he contracted while in Rwanda and Zaire led to a range of health issues over the next two decades. Colvin’s kidneys were failing and he needed a transplant. Help came from an unlikely source – one of his interview subjects, Mary-Ellen Field, was wrongly accused of leaking information about supermodel Elle Macpherson and lost her job as the Australian’s business advisor before the details of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal ultimately emerged. The pair went on to become friends.

Field donated her kidney to Colvin, but her identity was kept secret until a Four Corners program on organ donation in Australia, which featured the life-saving operation.

The story even became a play, Mark Colvin’s Kidney, which premiered at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre this year.

Mark Colvin. Source: ABC

The son of a British MI6 secret agent, Colvin’s extraordinary life was recounted in Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son, published last year, in which he mused on the similarities between the crafts of father and son, saying “I stepped unconsciously into a field of work that I thought was the opposite of what my father did, but may have only been so in the way that the reverse side of a coin are opposite to each other”.

Colvin’s insight into his approach to journalism in the book’s introduction goes some way towards explaining why he became so widely admired and respected. It is a manifesto not just for his craft, but for life in general.

“If I have a journalistic credo, it’s this: don’t make up your mind before you’ve gathered the facts. Never start with a conclusion. Test your theories against the evidence. If the facts contradict you, change your thesis: don’t try and crush the reality into your pre-planned script.

“Be one pair of eyes. Gather your facts, listen to others’ opinions, cast your net wide. Then — and only then — draw your conclusions,” he wrote.

As well as being widely read, which shone through in the erudition of Colvin’s ability to tackle a wide range of subjects, he also loved music, as the playlist he shared following the book’s release revealed.

That love of music continues through his two sons, from his second marriage to Michele McKenzie, Nicolas, a singer/songwriter for Deep Sea Arcade, and William, a writer and singer/songwriter for Hedge Fund.

Mark Colvin’s 2012 Andrew Olle Lecture was a rally cry for good journalism at a time of unprecedented threats and change to the industry.

“I wish I could give you a roadmap and some certainty. I can’t, and anyone who says they can is a charlatan,” he said.

“All I can give you is my profound conviction that good journalism – journalism of integrity – is a social good and an essential part of democracy, and we have to do everything we can to try to preserve it.”

Mark Colvin
Radio broadcaster and journalist
13 March, 1952 – 11 May, 2017

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