1945 - | NSW | Broadcast journalist
For more than a quarter of a century, Kerry O’Brien was Australia’s premier political interviewer/reporter on television. He was a role model for a generation of broadcast journalists and was the presenter for the ABC’s flagship current affairs programs Lateline, 7.30 Report and Four Corners. His leadership and interviews helped cement the ABC’s reputation as an important part of Australian political journalism. O’Brien won six Walkley awards, including a Gold Walkley for an expose on Channel 7 of the harmful effects of commonly used chemicals. During federal elections, O’Brien hosted leaders ’debates and tally-room coverage.
17 May 2010: 7.30 Report Studio, Sydney.
Tony Abbott: “The statements that need to be taken absolutely as Gospel Truth is (sic) those carefully prepared, scripted remarks.”
Kerry O’Brien: “So, every time you make a statement we have to ask you whether it is carefully prepared and scripted or whether it is something on the fly?”
Tony Abbott: “Look, look. We, we…”
Kerry O’Brien: “No, seriously. This is a very serious question.”
Tony Abbott: “But, but, but, all of us, Kerry, all of us, um, when we’re in the heat of verbal combat, so to speak, will sometimes say things that will go a little further.”
And so unfolded yet another of Kerry O’Brien’s masterful public eviscerations of a senior political figure who made the mistake of turning up for a 7.30 Report interview unprepared or, worse, complacent.
For the more than 15 years he fronted the ABC’s flagship TV current affairs program, Kerry O’Brien built a fearsome reputation as one of Australia’s most incisive, forensic and dogged interviewers. While his prime-time grillings may have unnerved a generation of politicians, for his younger colleagues they served as an on-air, nightly, master class on the art of the interview.
O’Brien says the secret was all about preparation, and lots of it: “The more you do your homework, the more confident you are, the more competent you are in framing your questions, and in presenting them—and in being able to hold your own if the person you are talking to is challenging the substance of your questions.”
Kerry O’Brien also brought to the job decades of experience as a print, wire service and TV reporter. He began his working life as a ‘non-achieving’ Queensland public servant, but weekend work in Brisbane’s Channel 9 newsroom led to a dramatic career change: “From the moment I walked into that place and was shown the corner where the police radio was and felt the hum and the vibe of that newsroom, I was hooked.”
O’Brien went from Nine to a provincial newspaper in Ipswich, then AAP before eventually landing at ABC-TV’s groundbreaking This Day Tonight, Australia’s first daily television current affairs program. It was to serve as valuable grounding for a career that came to be dominated by political reporting, with a brief detour as press secretary to Labor Leader Gough Whitlam.
After stints at the Seven and Ten networks, including time as a foreign correspondent, O’Brien returned to the ABC in 1990, initially to anchor Lateline and then, in 1995, to take up the job of editor and presenter of the 7.30 Report. For the next 15 years he established himself as a towering figure on Australia’s media landscape, with the 7.30 Report, and particularly its feature political interview, almost required viewing.
It wasn’t just prime ministers and opposition leaders coming under O’Brien’s well-researched glare. He has also interviewed world leaders including Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. And just to prove his versatility, O’Brien regularly turned his knowledge and wit to engaging interviews with actors, musicians and novelists. His November 2010 chat with an exceptionally candid Robin Williams was one of my personal favourites.
For 20 years, O’Brien was also the face of the ABC’s election night broadcasts. These often epic affairs were a showcase of his encyclopedic political knowledge, herculean stamina and often wicked sense of humour. His partnership and on-air banter with election analyst Antony Green became legendary.
At the end of 2010, O’Brien announced he was leaving 7.30 to give his brain “something of a breather” from the torrid slog of presenting a nightly current affairs show. For the next five years, he fronted Four Corners, a show he had worked on as a reporter back in the 1980s. His mere appearance at the start of each Monday’s show lent the program an added air of credibility and respect.
When O’Brien left the anchor’s chair in November 2015, then ABC Managing Director Mark Scott said the veteran journalist had been a vital part of a “golden era at Four Corners.” ABC News Director Gaven Morris described him as a “giant of Australian journalism”.
It was a nearly 50-year career that produced six Walkley awards, including the Gold Walkley and the Walkley for Outstanding Leadership. Other industry awards included a Logie for public affairs coverage.
O’Brien puts his success down to simple traits that should live in any journalist: “What I see looking back now is that I am an innately curious person, and I think all good journalists are. We should be driven by curiosity to find things out and to understand things and then to communicate them. And I suppose a love of storytelling. You know, we’re all raconteurs in our own backyard, aren’t we? I bet if you’re sitting down with a couple of glasses of wine and a few mates over a dinner or a lunch you tell a lot of yarns, don’t you? And we’re paid to do it as journalists.”
Michael Rowland is co-presenter of ABC-TV’s News Breakfast and a keen student of Kerry O’Brien’s interview technique.
Courtesy of ABC
Kerry O'Brien in 2010. Courtesy of Fairfax
'Meet Kerry O’Brien', Peter Wilmoth, The Weekly Review, 11 August 2011
'Kerry O’Brien stepping down as host of Four Corners', Karl Quinn, The Age, 6 November 2015