SUMMER READING: Veteran journalist Kerry O'Brien's memoir.
SUMMER READING: Veteran journalist Kerry O'Brien's memoir.

Led by the chin: Kerry O'Brien details life in the news

I CAN remember growing into social and political awareness at the hands of journalist Kerry O'Brien. He was at the dinner table with my parents and then myself for almost 30 years that Kerry reported for the ABC on This Day Tonight, Four Corners and 7.30.

Kerry's recently released A Memoir sits on top of my pile of books that I have been quietly and carefully collecting over the last three months in preparation for a few weeks of summer holiday reading.

It's a thick book, but my initial review of it indicates it is going to be well worth taking the time to read it as the veteran journalist takes me on a journey through his experiences of living and working during Australia's social, political, media and cultural evolution from the 40s through to 2015.

Throughout his 50-year career Kerry has borne witness to significant changes to it Australia's political landscape and the processes in which is reported.

"We are certainly in a different era of journalism than the one I grew up in, in many ways," Kerry said. "The fundamentals of journalism are absolutely still the same, but the trappings have changed massively and the means of delivery have changed massively."

When he started working in television in the 60s the newsroom waited three or four days for the film of major events to reach Australia. The digital storm, as Kerry describes it, has turned television into an instantaneous medium.

"The second thing is where print always saw itself, in my early years, as the superior news medium, these days it is scrambling to keep up and we are converging on each other," Kerry said. "It's only a matter of time, and not far away before we are fundamentally using exactly the same means of delivery. In other words, we will be sharing common spaces and not just one space because there will be many means of delivery. I guess the days of hardcopy newspapers are all but gone."

These changes are driving a reduction in journalism staff, but no decrease in the workload. "That is having an impact on the quality of news," Kerry said.

The other key change in journalism Kerry notes is the 24-hour news cycle which has impacted on political reporting. "It's this kind of blind desire to fill the digital space simply because it is there whether you have something worth reporting, something worth analysing, or not," he said. "So, we have wall to wall mountain of words that sometimes has something to offer, and often doesn't.

"And we have politicians who feel compelled to be available when they are asked, no matter how frequently and regardless of whether they have got something to say, or not, because they worry that if they don't fill the space, somebody on the other side of politics will fill it for them. The overall quality, I think, has plummeted in many ways."

But Kerry remains a strong advocate for the ABC arguing that now, more than ever, as the social and political landscape changes dramatically, Australia needs the public broadcasting service. "Yet, here we are, watching the place being hit from one side to the other with a wall of hostility from the government, constant attacks from Rupert Murdoch who happens to own 70 per cent of the print output of the country as well as television influence and radio," Kerry said. "Although I know from personal experience the ABC has been an enormously resilient institution, you can't simply assume that it can continue with its resilience and can continue just battle on regardless no matter what harpoons are being thrown at it."

The young, carrot-top boy who spent his formative years in the small town of Brisbane and once dreamt of being a jackaroo, came to interview some of the world's most influential decision-makers and to drive hard Australia's understanding of the political changes occurring around them.

His decision to chronicle his journey and that of his family, including their Irish heritage, has been made possible by drawing on his published articles and spending countless hours reading transcripts and watching his interviews which he rarely watched once recorded, and from going through his extensive collection of notebooks and diaries.

"I have been able to take the interviews and look at what John Howard was telling us in response to the questions, compare it with what we now know of those events like East Timor, Iraq, kids overboard, the boarding of the Tampa, gun control laws, the Wik Native Title judgement, the Stolen Generation reports, John Howard's kind of obsession with the wars and the waterfront dispute, and I think new patterns emerge which I think might help in the next round of interpretation of that part of history," Kerry said.

While former prime minister Paul Keating said in his 2015 Sydney Opera House interview with Kerry O'Brien, "anyone who is any good never wrote about themselves", while discussing the motiviation to chronicle his life, Kerry neatly side-steps this comment by claiming he believed Mr Keating was referring to politicians at the time, not to someone like Kerry.

"The biggest motivator (for me) really was the realisation that simply the accident of the different places I worked in my 50-year journey through journalism, I had a ringside seat for many, many milestone moments in post-war history, not just within Australia, but globally," he said.

"I was standing on the steps of Parliament House when Gough came out to make his famous utterance about Kerr's cur. I then followed, for Four Corners, Whitlam through that campaign while a colleague, Alan Hogan, followed Malcolm Fraser. I have very vivid memories of that event and the election that followed."

Insights

  • Does his miss not being at the forefront of political journalism?

"I have been perfectly happy to be where I am. I have felt no hunger to be sitting through interviews with Prime Minister Abbott or Prime Minister Turnbull or Prime Minister Morrison. I haven't missed it, but I have continued to follow it.

"I have been reassured my instincts were right when I decided to stand down from that kind of structured life as a journalist."

  • What about Trump?

"I don't think we are necessarily on the brink of something bad, but I do think that democracy is under challenge throughout the liberal democratic world. You can see it in European countries, in Britain, you can certainly see it in America and you can see it in Australia. We can not afford to keep changing our prime ministers like socks.

"We can not afford to keep failing the Australian people in the way we are at the moment. The fact that four of the last five prime ministers to have come and gone have been shown the door within their own parties rather than by the voters, is an indictment in itself. We know both major parties are not in good shape. They are not showing any great capacity to reflect on their flaws and work out how on earth they rejuvenate into something that is somewhat more inspirational and has direction, and has conviction about what it is doing."

  • The Prime Minister he most respects

It's still Gough Whitlam. "The evidence is there of the milestone reforms that he introduced which changed the face of Australia."

  • What happened to his chin

Kerry has his sister to thank for the dent in his chin and the subsequent scar from four stiches, all caused by a game she devised. "The others had enough of a survival instinct to work out how to brake before reaching the barbed wire fence, and in particular the hardwood fence post with this awesome array of splinters," he writes.

Kerry's book encapsulates this and many other significant milestones and offers a fascinating personal insight, with a few cheeky side observations, while keeping true to the historical facts.

Published by Allen & Unwin, Kerry O'Brien, A Memoir is in bookshops now. RRP$44.99.