Australia

Remembering Mark Colvin: A lodestar for journalism, and life

Mark Colvin sits in front of a radio microphone at the Australian Broadcasting Corp Image copyright ABC
Image caption Mark Colvin was well known in Australia as a broadcaster, foreign correspondent and prolific tweeter

Veteran Australian journalist Mark Colvin died on Thursday, aged 65. Nick Bryant - the BBC's Sydney correspondent from 2006 to 2011 - pays tribute to a man he knew as both broadcaster and friend.

Of all the places in Australia I came over the years to adore - the knoll at North Bondi from where you can see the gorgeous sweep of the coastline, Sydney's Circular Quay at sunset with its twilight panorama of opera house and bridge, Uluru at dawn when the outback begins to glow - there were few I treasured more than a seat at a table opposite Mark Colvin.

Brunch, lunch or dinner. Mark's company was one of the highest forms of entertainment that Sydney had to offer. Also it was the highest form of education.

To those who have never heard of Mark, let me sketch out a quick pen portrait. To my mind, he was Australia's finest broadcaster: the presenter of the PM programme on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), a news and current affairs show that for 20 years he made a fixture both of the local and national radio schedules.

Before that, he was a brave and debonair foreign correspondent, who was drawn to the most dangerous places in the world because he knew instinctively they would be the most interesting.

In his later years, he was also the dean of the Australian Twitterati, and known to many by his Twitter handle, @colvinius, rather than his real name. Social media gave him a global platform and new fans around the world.

Image copyright Mark Colvin
Image caption Mark Colvin, aged seven, with his father, off the south coast of Malaysia in 1959

Born in Britain, he was a graduate of Oxford and the son of a high-ranking MI6 spy. But he came to live permanently in Australia as a 22-year-old - his mother, who survives him, is an Aussie - and ended his life as one of the country's favourite sons.

Not many journalists elicit tributes on the floor of parliament from the prime minister of the day and the leader of the opposition. But such was his contribution to national life and such was the respect he commanded on all sides of politics and from all sections of the media.

Australia loves battlers: people who overcome adversity; people who make the best of a bad hand. And covering the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Mark was dealt some of the cruellest cards of all.

He contracted a rare disease that physically hobbled him, brought him almost constant discomfort for the rest of his life and restricted his beloved travel because of his need for dialysis. But this broken body continued to house the most brilliant of brains and the kindest of hearts.

Then there was his transplanted kidney, Australia's most storied organ. Few covered the News International phone hacking scandal more closely than Mark, and it brought him into contact with Mary-Ellen Field, an associate of the supermodel Elle Macpherson whose mobile was hacked.

So close became their friendship that Mary-Ellen learnt of his illness and offered him her kidney.

Image copyright ABC

This extraordinary story - one of the few good things to come from the hacking scandal - became the subject of a heartrending ABC documentary, a stage play, Mark Colvin's Kidney, and, fittingly, a parody Twitter account. It all helped bring attention to a cause that was dear to him: organ donation.

A great gift of Mark's friendship was to have access to his polymath mind. His was a brain with an up-to-the-minute knowledge of all the best box sets, podcasts, magazine essays, recent novels. Partly because of the ill health that plagued him for two decades, he became an even more voracious reader, watcher, and listener.

His mind also contained a wide-ranging back catalogue of knowledge, which he could summon in an instant.

Mark greatly admired Clive James, and would doubtless balk at being compared to the famed Kid from Kogarah. But they shared the same intellectual curiosity and much of the same breadth of learning. Mark was a scholar journalist, whose reporting was informed as much by his deep understanding of history as his grasp of the hurtling present.

Image copyright ABC

I am making him sound high-brow - which he was. Intellectually, he operated at a higher altitude than us all. But the reason why so many people loved him was that he was also fabulously down-to-earth.

This product of Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, was just at home talking about the Sydney Swans as he was politics, literature or the arts. In that great Australian everyman sort of way, he could also detect the cant and fraudulent in an instant. His Australian side asserted itself more strongly than the British.

Certainly, Mark was a towering giant of Australian journalism and also one of its lodestars. Ethically unimpeachable. Textbook fair and balanced. Fastidious about accuracy. He personified the very best in public broadcasting, and was a staunch believer in the value of organisations like the ABC and BBC.

He epitomised quality journalism, and did more than most - through his mentoring of young reporters - to nurture quality journalists. This was true from his first day at the ABC to his last.

One of his fellow ABC cadets used to suffer from nerves when she first started reading news bulletins, so Mark would sit alongside her in the studio. Now Jenny Brockie is one of Australia's most highly respected journalists and presenters.

Image copyright Mark Colvin
Image caption Mark Colvin working as a reporter for the ABC in 1976

Being interviewed by Mark was like having a tutorial at university. Even if you had done your homework, and understood your subject, there was always that nagging feeling that he knew more.

Mark even looked like one of those donnish figures fictionalised in the pages of the Cold War thrillers he loved.

Clive James, the art critic Robert Hughes, the comedian Barry Humphries, the thinker Germaine Greer. I honestly think Mark deserves to be spoken of in the same breath.

And perhaps he would have been if he had not returned to Australia. Perversely, the country has always placed its cultural exports on a higher pedestal than equivalent talents who stay at home.

When I wrote a book about Australia, it was a blurb from Mark that my publisher and I wanted on the cover. Ever the generous friend, he obliged. When recently I wrote an essay on Donald Trump's first 100 days, Mark was the only person outside of the BBC I sent it to. To have his imprimatur was to know you had done a half-decent job.

Image copyright Twitter

But it was his friendship, rather than his validation, that I prized most. I looked on him as Australian family, a journalistic father figure.

Bondi. Sydney harbour. Uluru. Mark would doubtless have raised an eyebrow at the unoriginality of my opening. But I hope he would appreciate the allusion.

For he was a national treasure and a national landmark, someone who stood for all that was good in journalism and all that was good in life.

Proud was I to call him a colleague. Lucky was I to call him a mate.