Vale Mark Colvin
Tuesday 21 June 2017
Mark Colvin was born in London to an Australian-born mother, Anne, and a British father—the naval officer, diplomat, secret agent and historian, John Colvin. His father's work took him overseas, so the young Mark Colvin was sent to boarding schools, including Summer Fields prep, near Oxford, and Westminster School, in London. He did not enjoy his time at boarding school, which he later described as barbaric. After his parents divorced, when he was 11, Mark and his younger sister lived with their mother, while their father moved into a nearby flat. But even then Mark did not find out his father was a high-ranking member of MI6, and could not ascertain from his father the full details, even when his father passed away in 2003. In his memoir, Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy's Son, he goes into some of those details. He reflected, too, in an interview with his son, William Colvin, about the impact that his upbringing had on him. He said to his son: 'I always tried to be a good dad to you and take you to lots of places.' He was determined not to send his own children to boarding school, despite being a foreign correspondent, but was determined to go to the theatre and to cook meals and to be what he called 'as much of a present dad as possible.' Words that I am sure all of us in this place who are struggling to combine work and parenting feel most acutely.
Mark Colvin got a cadetship at the ABC in 1974, joined 2JJ in 1975 and then was promoted to foreign correspondent at the age of 28. He served in a range of different contexts. It was when he was working on covering the Ethiopian famine that he won a gold medal at the New York Film Festival for his report The Forgotten Famine and was nominated for an international Emmy. His foreign reporting came with costs. In covering the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, Mark Colvin contracted a rare autoimmune disease, Wegener's granulomatosis, which caused him severe pain. His friend Leigh Sales described him as a Stoic, somebody who did not talk about his physical ailments because, as he put it to her: 'It's just so boring, Sales. There are so many more interesting things I'd rather discuss.' I love that Stoic approach to life, that pain is something to be endured and it is just better to get on with living life.
He was within two weeks of dying in 2011 when a British woman, Mary-Ellen Field, who he had come to know through the News of the World phone-hacking case, reached out to him and offered him a kidney donation. He tried to put her off but eventually relented, and that gave us six more years of the wonderful Mark Colvin as well as a play, Mark Colvin's Kidney, staged at the Belvoir Street Theatre. Ms Field reflected on the donation just days before his death, saying she had spoken to Mark Colvin and he had told her how much he loved her and that she 'mustn't cry, because he needed me to be strong.' 'It was the best thing I have ever done,' she said, which is one of those extraordinary reminders that those moments of generosity when we feel like we are giving can sometimes be moments when we are gaining so much.
I met Mark Colvin once, at a conference, and was struck as so many people were by his mellifluous tones, by his interest in so many ideas and by his lack of dogmatism. I think Leigh Sales put it so nicely in her book On Doubt, where she said she does not trust zealots, people who do not even countenance for a moment that they might be wrong. Mark Colvin was not one of those people. He was interested and interesting. I remember engaging with him on Twitter on the issue of paying for organ donations and some of this fascinating research showing that it is only Iran that does not have transplant waiting lists, because it is one of the few countries that pays for organ donations. A piece of economic research and Mark Colvin was straight onto it and engaged and interested.
He had, too, such a terrific sense of humour. As Leigh Sales writes:
I once told him that I wanted to brighten up his hospital room with some beautiful images and so I texted him three photographs of flowers and one of Gerard Henderson. He told me he thought he'd cracked a rib laughing so hard.
Michael Janda tells the story that he was doing a live finance report on PM with Mark Colvin and read out:
… "gold is worth (whatever the number was) US dollars a barrel."
I quickly corrected myself to say "an ounce", and continued to the end of the report.
Then Mark Colvin did the back announce:
And that's our finance reporter Michael Janda, who buys his gold by the barrel.
Mark Colvin was somebody with whom we shared the stories of the day. We knew that he was not just a scribe but that he was engaged in the important issues of the day. He was instrumental in seeing the release of Australian journalist Peter Greste from an Egyptian prison, in campaigning on organ donation, in encouraging Australians to think of ourselves as being a part of the world. So much of PM is different from what you hear if you listen to, say, NPR in the United States. I lived for four years in the US and one of the joys of coming back to Australia was coming to a country where world news was not just five per cent at the end of the bulletin but could well take up the bulk of the bulletin if the things happening in the globe mattered to Australians and we needed to know about it. That was the way in which Mark Colvin operated, not a narrow parochialism but an engaged internationalism.
I loved listening to the sound of his voice, as so many did. Having worked for Michael Kirby for a year—one of the other great Australians with mellifluous voices—I have got to say there is a real pleasure in sharing ideas with somebody whose voice comes from deep within their chest and whose ideas are rich and engaged. Former ABC managing director, Mark Scott, described Mark Colvin as a Renaissance man who always had the messiest car in the ABC car park—one of those reminders that sometimes a messy desk and a messy car can be a sign of a mind that is well engaged with the world. He was generous to young journalists, he was engaged with his audience and we will miss him a great deal. Like Andrew Olle, another ABC great taken from us too young, Mark Colvin shaped our world and shaped how we think about the globe for the better. He is survived by: his wife, Michelle McKenzie; his sons Nicolas and William; his mother, Anne; and his sister, Zoe. Rest in peace, Mark Colvin. We will miss you and we are so much better for having known you.