Kerry O’Brien: A mammoth memoir and a history lesson

It’s been a while since my last blog post. The reason: I have been reading the mammoth memoir of the distinguished journalist, foreign correspondent, presenter and author, Kerry O’Brien. It’s 834 pages of meaty material, with 36 more: acknowledgments, notes, bibliography and an index. No photos. Otherwise, it would have reached 900 pages. (The TV studio photo above of Kerry is from The Australian.)
I looked up the index to see if I was there, as journos do, given that I worked with Kerry as the foreign editor of the Seven Network when he was the US correspondent based in Los Angeles from 1983 to 1984. My name was not there. But don’t worry. This is a review of Kerry’s excellent book, not my recollections!
It’s more than a memoir, but a global history of more than 7 decades during the Life of O’Brien, as well as several hundred more years of his Irish ancestors, in a chapter titled Origins, thanks to his family of talented amateur historians and the SBS documentary series, Who Do You Think You Are? It started with William Eaton and Jane Ison, the first of Kerry’s mother Lotta’s ancestors to come to Australia. William on Admiral Barrington in the Third Fleet in 1791, convicted of stealing a wheel of Cheshire cheese, and Jane on the ship, Surprize, carrying 83 convicts, including sixty women. She was one of five women charged with conspiring to rob a Welsh drover visiting London looking for sexual comfort.
The chapter also focuses on the great Irish famine in the mid-1840s, when thousands died from starvation, disease and exposure to the cold. The Irish historian Ciaran O Murchadha provides eyewitness accounts of the horrific treatment handed out to the laborers and farmers; and the estimated 500 to 600,000 thousand people evicted from tenant houses. There were also the O’Briens, who came as free settlers from Ireland to Brisbane in 1850. Kerry praises Charles O’Brien, Hannah McEvoy and his grandmother Jane, all of whom were tough, resilient, brave and survivors in a world of inequality. (Photo of Kerry with Irish records on SBS’s Who Do You Think You Are below).
Fast forward to Brisbane in 1945 with the birth of Kerry O’Brien on August 27 to Jack and Lotta O’Brien and in 1946, the family moved to Stanthorpe in country Queensland, followed by Warwick 60 kilometres up the road four years later. Kerry’s older brother, Tony, his sister Barbara and him, came along at three-year intervals, and Paul, seven years later. A good Irish Catholic family. Tony trained for six years to become a Christian Brother in Strathfield, but went to Sydney University, and wound up getting married with his first child, sailing off to the US, where he still lives. Kerry’s father Jack stood as the endorsed Labor candidate for Warwick in 1953, but lost to a Country Party member.

The next chapter is a pocket history of Queensland culture and politics, during the Menzies era when, as Kerry puts it, “The landscape we looked out on as a community … reflected a white Caucasian simplicity. The job was safe, the marriage was intact, women mostly knew their place and God was in his heaven.” A Christian Brother named Dan Mooney made life hell for Kerry, as Julia Zemiro pointed out in her ABC series, Home Delivery, when Brother Dan flailed his student with his strap, and then demanded Kerry’s expulsion. The principal of St Laurence’s College, Brother Bernie Crawford, now in his nineties, had this to say about Mooney at his retirement home: “He was a plodder who was really out of his depth. I must confess I never realized what he was perpetuating in the classroom.”
After a year and a half as a public servant, Kerry found himself in the Brisbane office of the Commonwealth Department of Supply in 1964, facing the lottery reintroduced by Menzies as Australia’s involvement in Vietnam grew. Fortunately, his number didn’t come up and he got his first job in journalism with Channel Nine in Brisbane, listening to police radio for stories. Despite his very basic job in the newsroom, Kerry was hooked, instantly absorbing “the hum of the place, the adrenalin of creating something out of nothing as a tight unit with unforgiving deadlines . . .” On the verge of his 21st birthday, he became a cadet journalist and joined the Australian Journalist’s Association (AJA), visiting a Walkley Awards’ exhibition of the work of journos and photographers. Little did he know he would go on to win six Walkley Awards, including the Gold Walkley.
That was Chapter 3, Drifting into Journalism, where he learned a lesson about the culture of his craft: “The great attraction for a young journo was simply to be invited along to the pub with the older hands. In newspapers particularly in those days, journalists had a license to drink on the job.” Kerry knew when to stop. Many others in our profession didn’t.
There are 30 chapters in Kerry’s memoir, each one providing historical background, as well as personal experiences. In South to the Jungle (the jungle being Sydney), 22-year-old O’Brien was a C-grade journalist at Australian Associated Press (AAP) and subbing stories about the war in Vietnam, hoping to become a correspondent there. The AAP correspondent, Michael Birch, and three other journalists were killed in a Viet Cong ambush in Cholon. It gives Kerry the opportunity to comment on the war, saying it was hard to imagine how even the best and brightest of the Kennedy administration would have signed on for Vietnam if they’d read Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American. On a personal note, O’Brien admits how hopelessly prepared he would have been to go to Vietnam. His next AAP assignment was Port Moresby, with his first wife, Carol, and their six-month old twins, covering the visit of then Labor leader, Gough Whitlam, putting the issue of independence for Papua New Guinea to Australian voters.
Kerry’s flirtation with the tabloids, came with his next job, as a reporter with the Sydney Sun. The editor’s firm advice was to pitch his stories to readers with the mental age of eight to ten. Kerry commented with a joke: “Not even ten to twelve.” The reply: “Definitely not ten to twelve.” Welcome to the Tabloid Times. The legendary journalist, Cyril Pearl, author of the Wild Men of Sydney, summed up the tabloids’ selection of news which made newspapers owners rich: “The public is more interested in the people who break the law rather than the people who make it.” Our interest in crime stories hasn’t changed that much!
Kerry’s next assignment was as a reporter on ABC’s This Day Tonight (TDT) in Brisbane in 1972. It was a current affairs program that took on friend and foe and politicians, among them the Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The Fitzgerald Royal Commission highlighted the political and police corruption of that era, which Joh managed to escape years later. In 1991, he was facing trial for perjury related to commission evidence which resulted in a hung jury. Kerry had many adventures trying to cover the Premier, interviewing him a dozen times for the program, and being rebuffed on another four occasions by his press secretary, who ended up in jail, or by Joh himself, telling Kerry he would never talk to him again. Of course, he did.
After two more stints with TDT in Melbourne and Sydney, O’Brien was ready to take the biggest step of all to Four Corners, then in its fourteenth year in 1975 and already the Holy Grail of current affairs television. The 29-year-old journalist was working alongside Caroline Jones, Peter Luck, Geoffrey Watson, Allan Hogan, Jim Downes and John Temple, to name a few of the ABC stalwarts. Thanks to Four Cs, O’Brien had a ringside seat in the leadup to the most exciting and disturbing political event of the late 20th Century in Australia: The Dismissal. Ten years later, when Kerry rejoined Four Corners, he produced a ninety-minute documentary on Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s dismissal of the Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, with a “more historical perspective than was possible in the emotional atmospherics of the time.” In other words, when many Australians were living Gough’s plea: “Maintain the rage.” The long chapter ends with Kerry in the Wollongong Town Hall with Gough Whitlam on the Saturday after the dismissal, waiting to cross live to Four Corners and Caroline Jones. His last question to Gough on the day was whether supporters angry with Malcolm Fraser’s threat to block supply and the dismissal would feel they couldn’t afford to put Whitlam back. He replied: “People have now seen how grasping and unprincipled Mr Fraser is. He’ll stop at nothing . . . and I believe he made an error which the public . . . will not forget.” Whitlam unfortunately was wrong.
Kerry O’Brien also worked as Whitlam’s press secretary in 1977, sharing an office with the legendary political speech writer, Graham Freudenberg, when the Opposition Leader fought his last campaign. Gough lost the election badly, gaining only one seat after the worst result in Labor history in 1975. Kerry says he came to love Whitlam as well as respect him, admitting his faults, but paying a wonderful tribute “. . . he was still the giant of his time and one of the great figures of his century.” Kerry emceed Gough’s memorial service in Sydney Town Hall in November 2014 on behalf of his family. It was one of the most memorable farewells Australia has ever seen, with another Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who became Gough’s friend, in the audience. Fraser died four months later.
I first worked with Kerry O’Brien in 1983 when I was the foreign editor at the Seven Network in Sydney and he was the US correspondent based in Los Angeles. By then, Kerry had already won a Gold Walkley at Seven, as national affairs correspondent for Circle of Poison, a 90-minute documentary about hazardous chemicals used in household products. The doco focused on the victims whose lives had been affected by exposure to one or another of these poisonous chemicals.
Kerry learned quickly at Seven about the length of news stories when the lineup producer complained to the reporter about his 13-second piece to camera: “We like our pieces to camera to be no longer than eight seconds.” The interview grab was also too long: it should be a maximum of ten seconds. Welcome to commercial television! The news director, Vincent Smith, targeted the perennial winner of the news ratings, Channel Nine, recruiting heavily from newspapers, Cliff Neville and Andrew Fowler from The Australian, and radio broadcaster, Graham Davis, as well as poaching Paul Lyneham and Ken Begg from the ABC.
O’Brien had a productive but busy time as a foreign correspondent in Los Angeles in 1984, covering Michael Jackson winning Grammy Awards in Hollywood while travelling to the Mid-West and East Coast chasing candidates in the presidential primaries. Walter Mondale was the unlucky Democrat taking on the very popular Ronald Reagan, seeking re-election. One of the busiest news days I remember was July 19, and so does Kerry, who was at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco waiting for the nomination of Mondale, when a mentally ill man walked into a McDonald’s in San Diego, shooting and killing 21 bystanders and wounding 19 others before he was shot and killed. Greg Hoy, who joined Kerry as a second correspondent earlier in the year, flew to San Diego and managed to get the vision and story on the satellite in time. Two big stories in one day, both of them cut by Seven editor Sue Ferguson in Sydney. No wonder Kerry had this to say about being a correspondent and getting material back to Australia by satellite: “This was, and is, so often the life of a foreign correspondent: part personal input, part cut and paste, part farming the heavy resources of American network reporters and crews.”
Before returning to Australia, Kerry’s second wife, Sue Javes, gave birth to her first child, Jack Daniel O’Brien, at a hospital in Beverly Hills. Kerry left his first wife Carol, the hardest decision he ever made, and their three young children, just after he joined Lionel Bowen’s office. He met Sue a few months later. She was a journalist, 20 years old and he was 33. The age gap made Sue and Kerry cautious. Kerry adds: “Nearly 40 years and three children later she says she still has her doubts, but we’re still together.” Carol and Kerry did their best to minimise the break-up, but it wasn’t easy. Kerry writes of Lara, Chris and Anthony: “It’s reassuring to see them now as fulfilled adults and wonderful parents in stable relationships.”
Leaving Seven, O’Brien wound up in Canberra as political correspondent with the ABC, replacing Barrie Cassidy, who had just become Bob Hawke’s press secretary. Kerry heard about concerns, apparently from John Howard’s office, that his reporting would be biased due to his former Labor connections. He went to Howard’s office to see him and his press secretary Grahame Morris about the concerns, but neither ever raised any after that meeting. Barrie told O’Brien years later, after leaving Hawke’s office, that he’d never seen Hawke prepare for any other interviewer like he did for Kerry. Hawke easily defeated John Howard in the 1987 election.
Richard Carey, a mate of mine and supervising producer of Nine’s Sunday Program (where I worked for 20 years), offered Kerry a job at Channel Ten, and the new managing director, Ian Gow, confirmed it. The first sentence of Chapter 16, titled Turbulence at Ten, sums up Kerry O’Brien’s time at the commercial network: “My two years at the Ten Network served up all the swings and roundabouts of a sideshow carnival, with a few barkers thrown in for good measure.“ It was all that and more. Carey gathered a team of media veterans, Chris Masters, Maxine McKew, Peter George, Jill Singer, Greg Hoy, and a young reporter, Michael Cordell, now the manager of the biggest documentary house in Australian television, to produce Page One.
O’Brien blamed Carey’s lack of leadership, saying while his standards in print journalism and the Sunday Program were strong, he was no Gerry Stone (the executive producer of Sixty Minutes). In Carey’s defence, he was a good leader of Sunday, with executive producer Ian Frykberg keeping a close eye on the program, and often giving one or two-word suggestions to Richard about the next cover story, like Immigration or Negative Gearing. Frykers had close connections with the right-wing of the Labor Party so he knew which story was going to be an exclusive and was able to get politicians for Laurie Oakes (who was also able to access the best pollies). Thankfully, I never had to work at Page One.
Kerry launched a new Sunday morning program called Face to Face, taking on Sunday, a two-hour show from 9am to 11am. O’Brien admitted Ten couldn’t beat Sunday in the ratings, but believed they could succeed by breaking stories in interviews and news coverage. I don’t remember Sunday ever losing face to Face to Face. After a rough trot at the Ten Network with a management he’d lost faith in, when Page One became the Public Eye and Face to Face became The Walsh Report, Kerry O’Brien had something to be happy about: “The highlight of the nineties for me will always be Lateline . . . my six years with Lateline were as close as I’ve come to perfection in half a century of journalism. Nothing’s ever perfect, of course, but with Lateline, a few times, we came close.”
The magic for Kerry was touring the world by satellite from the ABC’s small studio in the Canberra press gallery in Parliament House, covering global news stories like the collapse of the Soviet Union, doing interviews with celebrities like the famous neurologist, Oliver Sachs; the feminists Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan; and three other world leaders, the former PM, Margaret Thatcher, South African president Nelson Mandela and an hour-long conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1995, four years after he resigned as the last president of the Soviet Union.
O’Brien interviewed Oliver Sachs twice for Lateline and three times for the 7.30 Report. He would have made it annually if he could. Sachs treated his patients like their disease: He wanted to address the person as much as the illness. He told Lateline: “The most important lesson of all was that you can’t treat patients mechanically, you can’t treat them identically. Every person is unique and irreplaceable, and you have to respect them, you have to listen to them very carefully.” Sachs battled terminal cancer in 2015 and reflected on being a patient in the New York Times: “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.” Sachs died six months later.
In 1993, Maggie Thatcher, now Baronet Thatcher of Kesteven, sitting in the House of Lords, gave her only Australian interview to Kerry O’Brien, promoting the second volume of her memoirs, despite a previous fiery conversation he had with her on Page One. In the Lateline interview she acknowledged looking back to Victorian times for inspiration, an age of vigorous virtues. Kerry responded, saying many more people would say the “age was marked by harsh puritanism, ignorance and moral hypocrisy.” She replied: “It was the greatest period of advance we’ve ever known, a period of great improvement of general life and health in the towns and cities. But that’s not what I was referring to, Mr O’Brien. It was the period of vigorous virtues. You took responsibility for your own life … It’s the vigorous virtues that have gone.”
O’Brien asked in his final question if she would take any responsibility at all if the Conservative Party lost the next election. The Baronet’s rigorous response: “Mr O’Brien [long disapproving pause], I’ve never lost an election. I’ve never had less than a 45 [seat] majority. I reject what you’re saying. My successor won his first election. I hope he’ll win his second on truly conservative policies because I believe another dose of socialism [referring to Tony Blair] would be extremely bad, not only for Britain, but for everything in which I believe.” Kerry writes: “And that was that.”
It’s no wonder that Kerry’s interview with Nelson Mandela in November 1994 was one of the highlights of his journalistic life. It was six months after Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s first ever democratic election for citizens of all races. Kerry flew into Johannesburg with producer Andrew Fowler and conducted the interview in the president’s official residence. It was difficult to fashion questions, not because of Mandela’s power, but because he was “a living symbol of so much pain and suffering and appalling injustice, being asked to justify himself by yet another privileged white man.”
Replying to the warning of Thabo Mbeki, Nelson’s successor, that various anti-African National Congress (ANC) counter-intelligence forces were still sowing the seeds of dissent, Mandela said: “I am not worried because I am confident of the ANC. We have fought and defeated apartheid with all our imagination. We are now in power. We are now in an even better position to scrap all these things and succeed.”
O’Brien raised the assassination of church leader and anti-apartheid white activist, Johan Heyns, a few days before in Johannesburg, and drew the parallel that Mandela would be the ultimate target. “Scores of freedom fighters have been assassinated during the last two or three decades,” he said. “None as important as Nelson Mandela,” Kerry replied. Mandela said: “Actually, we are a collective. It doesn’t matter who goes. There are capable men and women who are leading this organization and the sunlight in which we are now bathing was not created by those who were relaxing in prison for twenty-seven years.”
Kerry summed up the problems still plaguing South Africa, where unemployment is 27 per cent and more than half the country lives in poverty: “As I said at the start, this was always going to be a long journey.”
Number three in the “big hit” interviews was Mikhail Gorbachev, whose leadership was the exact opposite of Nelson Mandela. The South African was jailed on Robben Island for 27 years before taking his rightful place as president while Gorbachev was the supreme leader of the Soviet Union, trying to lead his country away from repressive rule. O’Brien went to Moscow with Lateline’s Dugald Maudsley in January 1991 to set up three programs to kick off the year. John Lombard and Monica Attard headed the Moscow bureau but had enough on their hands as it was, so Tony Jones joined Kerry and Dugald to provide background reports. The programs went well, but six months after the crew returned the long-awaited coup occurred. On August 19, Lateline stayed on air well beyond the scheduled time, with live crosses from Lombard and Attard and, as Kerry puts it, “anyone else we could get to a camera.” The coverage, combined with the earlier programs, earned Lateline a Walkley Award and a Logie. After six years of reforms, the coup leaders and party apparatchiks lost their confidence and collapsed. Boris Yeltsin became a hero and Gorbachev’s hold on power collapsed. He resigned in December 1991.
Four years later, in December 1995, O’Brien was in a Tokyo hotel interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev for Kerry’s final Lateline. The team had decided to extend the program time, with simultaneous translation and subtitles – each wearing earpieces to hear the translator. O’Brien and Gorbachev talked about whether the genie of a nuclear bomb could ever be put back in the bottle. “Being in charge of a nuclear power doesn’t make you feel comfortable,” Gorbachev said. “It’s always on your mind that you’re sitting right next to that briefcase. It’s a constant reminder that you live in a different world and have a special responsibility.”

Kerry took on ABC management over the axing of Lateline on December 7, 2017 after 28 years of quality journalism. (The Sunday Program was axed by the Nine Network in August 2008 after 27 years of quality journalism.) According to the ABC, it was a response to the digital challenge. O’Brien writes: “I understand the profound impact of digital technology on traditional media and the need to respond intelligently or risk going under. This applies to public broadcasting as much as any other arm or media. What I don’t understand is why a current affairs concept like Lateline had to be part of the sacrifice on the digital altar.” Hear, hear Kerry.
O’Brien had a rough time in the nineties. His younger brother Paul, who suffered from schizophrenia and a rare blood disease, committed suicide; his father died of emphysema and two close friends, Vincent Smith and Andrew Olle lost their battles, Vincent to cancer and Andrew to a brain tumour. But Kerry did enjoy six years of Lateline and working for two dynamic managing directors, David Hill and Brian Johns. And in December 1995, Kerry became the presenter and editor of the national 7.30 Report, with executive producer, Ian Carroll, and they shaped the program together – Ian with staff and Kerry content. O’Brien stayed with 7.30 until 2010, hence the title of Chapter 21: Fifteen Years Before the Mast. It was a time of significant historical changes: The digital age and the burgeoning Internet, globalisation, blue collar jobs morphing into white-collar ones, and terrorism coming to the fore in 9/11. Kerry interviewed Prime Minister John Howard on nearly one hundred occasions, and as far as I know, he never said no to a conversation with a foreign leader. (Kerry getting ready for an interview with John Howard. Photo SMH above.) Kerry O’Brien is renowned for his interviews: Prime Ministers, here and abroad, Opposition Leaders, politicians from all sides, and celebrities. To name a few: James Taylor, Robin Williams, Ruth Cracknell, Michael Palin, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Isabel Allende, Carrie Fisher, Nicole Kidman and Les Murray.
But O’Brien is humble about his role as presenter: “The credibility of the anchor will always be important to the program’s success, but in the end programs like 7.30 will live and die on the strength, relevance and robustness of their journalism.”
Let’s take one of Kerry’s celebrity interviews to illustrate his point. It’s one of his favourites, a backstage conversation with Bruce Springsteen after a 1997 concert at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney. O’Brien, a big fan of John Steinbeck, asked Springsteen why the great American novelist was such an influence on him: “In school I read Of Mice and Men, but it was pretty hard to perceive the material at the time. But then later through the film [The Grapes of Wrath] … I read the novel. I was now at a point in my life where I was looking for the rest of the pieces of the puzzle. How does your life have meaning ultimately? Is it just a pursuit of personal freedom, of doing what you want when you want to do it. It didn’t feel like it was to me, because I’d gotten there. It felt like it came up short.” Springsteen is just one of the many “Real Celebrities” in Chapter 23.

I could go on, but there are still 300 pages to peruse, from East Timor’s independence to 9/11, the Invasion of Iraq, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, an interview with Barack Obama at the White House and the Origins of the O’Briens. I’ve read every word, but I’ll leave the rest to you.
In his Acknowledgements, Kerry pays tribute to one of his best mates and mine, Paul Lockyer (I was Paul’s producer at the Sunday Program in the early 1990s), who died in a helicopter crash in 2011, with two of his ABC workmates, Gary Ticehurst and John Bean. He writes this about Lockers: “. . . he typified so much of the essence of good journalism in general and the spirit of the ABC in particular. Paul Lockyer was the kind of journalist who could turn his hand to anything and always told his stories well. He was intelligent, adroit and always committed to the pursuit of excellence without fuss. He was a political correspondent, foreign correspondent and Olympics reporter par excellence. He was also selfless, endlessly cheerful and generous with his colleagues – just one of those fundamentally decent human beings who helped make the lives of others better.”
The last word should go to Kerry, and of course, it’s about journalism: “… journalists are there to bear honest witness to history in its most personal as well as its most sweeping manifestations. That is what we try to do. Build a truthful picture of the world as it really is, to shed light on why it is, and ask what it might aspire to be.”

Kerry O’Brien, A Memoir, Allen & Unwin. $44.99

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