1952 - 2017 | NSW | Foreign correspondent & broadcaster
British-born Mark Colvin became one of Australia’s finest news and current affairs broadcasters, a man who brought some of biggest international stories to Australian radio and television audiences for nearly four decades from 1980. As a foreign correspondent he married vivid descriptions with superb context and background. Between postings he was the founding presenter of the ABC radio program The World Today and from 1997 was host of the evening program PM, a role he held for 20 years. Mark inspired many colleagues to become ABC journalists and then to become better journalists because of his professionalism, courage and resilience in the face of debilitating diseases. ABC colleague Tony Jones described him simply as “the greatest broadcaster of the ABC’s modern era and without doubt an acknowledged national treasure.
It’s late 2008 and I’m sitting in the ABC’s Washington bureau utterly exhausted after another whirlwind day covering the epic presidential election. I’ve filed half a dozen radio news stories as well as reports for AM and The World Today and done the odd TV cross. The last thing I now feel like doing is stumping up again for PM. But it’s not just PM I’m filing for. It is Mark Colvin. The fatigue dissipates and the thrill of getting to speak to Mark on air (and, if lucky, off air too) powers me through until deadline.
Mark Colvin had that effect on the many young journalists he mentored and inspired in his long career at the ABC. Behind that distinctive and authoritative voice was a beautiful, gentle man who cared deeply about his colleagues, particularly those following his footsteps as a foreign correspondent.
Colvin’s love of overseas reporting undoubtedly sprang from his rather unconventional upbringing. He spent his childhood in London, Oslo, Vienna and Kuala Lumpur. His father, John, lived a double life as a British diplomat and an MI6 spy. These experiences were to form the basis of a touching memoir, Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son, published a year before Colvin’s death.
After graduating from Oxford with honours in Literature, Colvin moved to Australia where, in 1975, he landed a cadetship with ABC Radio News. In his Andrew Olle Lecture in 2012, Colvin described his first day at the ABC: "Somehow, Aunty, where the BBC voice was still pretty prevalent in those days, saw something in me and, stylish in a denim jacket with patch pockets and a pair of flared trousers, I turned up on February the eleventh 1974 at164 William St, headquarters of ABC News."
And so began a 42-year career dedicated to public broadcasting.
Shortly after starting his cadetship, Colvin became one of the founding presenters at the ABC’s new music station 2JJ, now Triple J. In 1980, at the age of 28, he was appointed as the ABC’s London correspondent, a posting that saw him cover stories including the US hostage crisis in Iran and the final years of the Cold War.
From 1988 to 1992, Colvin was a Sydney-based reporter for Four Corners, winning a Gold Medal at the New York Film Festival for a story on the Ethiopian famine.
In 1992, he was sent to London again in what was to prove a fateful return posting. In 1994, while covering the Rwandan genocide, Colvin contracted Wegener’s granulomatosis, a rare illness that affects the bloodstream. On his return to London, Colvin fell gravely ill from severe fluid build-up and kidney failure. Despite spending several months in hospital, his kidneys were permanently damaged and he had to have both hips replaced. It was a near-death experience that came to overshadow the last 20 years of his life.
In 1997, a still convalescing Colvin returned to Sydney to take up the presenting reins at PM, the ABC’s flagship evening radio current affairs program - a job he was to hold until just months before his death.
As well as filing for the show as a US correspondent, I got to see Mark and the PM team up close as a business and economics reporter. He and his producers would gather around midday to talk about the stories to follow and the interviews to chase. Then followed another, much more enjoyable “production meeting” at a nearby Chinatown restaurant, before Mark got back to his desk to sub scripts, write leads (and gently harangue the odd correspondent). And then, just after 6pm (5pm on RN), the red light in the current affairs studio would go on and those instantly reassuring words would be heard across the nation: “Good evening and welcome to PM, I’m Mark Colvin.”
They would be words still heard for many years to come if that 1994 trip to Rwanda didn’t keep intruding on Colvin’s life.
After spending three years on dialysis, Colvin had a kidney transplant in 2013. He met his donor, business adviser Mary-Ellen Field, on the job, during a PM interview on the News of the World hacking scandal. Field had been accused of giving journalists personal information about one of her clients, supermodel Elle McPherson. This extraordinary story later became the subject of a hugely entertaining play, Mark Colvin’s Kidney.
By the time the play premiered, at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre in early 2017, Colvin’s health had deteriorated. This time there would be no recovery; no life-saving transplant. Mark Colvin died on 11 May 2017 in Sydney’s Prince Alfred Hospital. He was 65.
Colvin’s impact on Australian journalism and society was measured by the range of tributes that flowed in once his death was announced.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Colvin’s journalism “was elegant and erudite. In a world of superficiality he was always informed and honest.”
The ABC’s Lateline presenter and good friend Tony Jones said Colvin could talk about anything. “He could range across international affairs, to domestic affairs, he could do the budget, he could interview politicians, he could interview anybody from the street and he could bring to it the same humanity and knowledge, no matter what he was doing.”
ABC foreign correspondent Sally Sara: “To get advice from you was an honour. To get a laugh from you was pure delight. A generous, clever, brave man. Thank you.”
Appropriately, Mark Colvin himself had the last word on his large life. In an epitaph posted to his 100,000-plus Twitter followers in the hours after his passing, he declared: “It’s all been bloody marvellous.”
Michael Rowland is co-presenter of News Breakfast on ABC-TV and a former ABC Washington correspondent.
Courtesy of ABC
The Four Corners team, featuring Mark Colvin. Courtesy of ABC
Mark Colvin’s Andrew Olle Lecture, 702 ABC Sydney website, 2 November 2012
Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son, Mark Colvin, Melbourne University Publishing, 2016.
'Mark Colvin, respected ABC journalist, PM presenter and former foreign correspondent dies aged 65', ABC News Online, 11 May 2017