Don't make up your mind before you've gathered the facts: Mark Colvin | radioinfo

Don't make up your mind before you've gathered the facts: Mark Colvin

Thursday 11 May, 2017
What would have been a book review has become an obituary.

Steve Ahern remembers Mark Colvin.

Last month I read Mark Colvin’s memoir Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a spy’s son.

The book is billed as an account of Mark’s life and the effect his father’s background as an agent for British Intelligence service MI6 had on him, but, to radio people it is also something richer, a snapshot of a career in the ABC which resonates with so many who worked there.

I have long since left the national broadcaster, but I began my ABC career in the rag tag collection of buildings in Upper Forbes Street Sydney where Mark Colvin also started. The book's descriptions of life in that building brought back radio memories for me. Mark chronicles his time in the radio newsroom, then a stint in the anarchic group of people who formed Double J, followed by his transfer to the Current Affairs department at a time when News and C’Aff were in a vicious internal fight for power within the national broadcaster.

Apart from an insight into Mark Colvin's thirst for investigation, much like his father, and a commitment to quality journalism, what also struck me in his memoir was the place popular music played in Mark’s life. I always thought of him as a serious talk journalist but, along with that interest, was a love of quality, meaningful popular music. References to song titles and lyrics are littered throughout his book.

Mark Colvin painted a picture of life in the ABC of the 1970s and 80s that captures the reality of daily working life at that time:

ABC News management called me in and told me that my cadetship was officially at an end, I was next in líne, had just turned twenty-two, and I was now one of just three journalists given the job of bringing Some kind of news service to an audience of young people our age…that reflected their interest in music, drug policy, the environment, unemployment and education, as well as the standard fare of traditional ABC journalism…Effectively, straight out of a year's cadetship, I was producing my own news bulletins every day [on Double J]…

[During the 1975 Whitlam Dismissal] we were listening to and discussing the audio feed from the Senate, but the law said we were not to broadcast it: the only legal way to broadcast any parliamentary proceedings then was live, uncut, without commentary, and on the designated parliamentary network. After a short while, we collectively took the decision to break this law now, and face the consequences later. We kept talking, interspersed with live crosses to the Senate with explanatory commentary. We got away with it on the day-not surprisingly, given how much else was going on… It was, I believe, an Australian broadcasting first, and yet another illustration of how much more controlled the media were at the time.

If I could take you back in a time machine to  that year… The station output that played through the speakers in every office was as likely to consist of fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra as it was Frank Zappa or John Mclaughlin. I occasionally catch myself listening to a 'classic hits' FM station and thinking how much it sounds like early Double J. But that's the nature of time passing: today's cutting edge is tomorrow's classic.

Especially in 1975, there was a huge backlog of great music: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, the solo work of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, Led Zeppelin, Carole King, David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, the early, bluesy Rod Stewart, Maria Muldaur, Bob Dylan, Santana, Minnie Ripperton, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Al Green, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley. Some of these artists were just starting out, some were in their prime, some were already dead. But for our audience, even if they'd heard some of these artists' singles, Double J was an album station, and as such most of what they were hearing was new.

That in itself was a subversion of the status quo, but it was the station's attitude that infuriated its opponents. From the casual irreverence of breakfast presenter Alan McGirvan and his companion "Captain Goodvibes the surfing pig,” to the first documentary the station aired, The Ins and Outs of Love, this was a station that wasn't going to play by the old rules. It was sex and language as much as politics that had bishops demanding the station's closure… This engendered a certain sense of siege, Double J was both a loose knit organisation, with an almost anarchistic way of self-government, and a very tight social group, with a strong sense of its own identity against the world. That put me and my immediate colleagues - as journalists seconded from the ABC newsroom, with one other, John Francis, seconded from ABC Current Affairs - in a peculiar situation. We were trying to evolve a form of journalism which reconciled a point of view, that of the young people we were broadcasting to, with the traditional values of balance and objectivity enshrined in ABC journalism.

And his recounting of how to use a Nagra tape recorder and file from the field is a flashback that journalists of the smartphone and twitter era will never really fully understand. Describing his field reporting from the Granville train disaster he writes:

You concentrate on your notebook and your tape recorder, to sort the most relevant points from the least, to do everything you can to stop the emotional blast of what you've seen and heard from interfering with your judgement You write short, simple, coherent sentences because you know that the facts are stark enough to speak for themselves…

In those days, you faced the most significant challenge: actually filing the story. There were no public phones free in the area. This was of course the era before mobile phones, and while some of the TV journalists had electronic links back to their stations, I was just a guy with a tape machine. You knocked on doors and begged people to let you use their phone, promising to pay for the call. Then they watched aghast as you took their phone apart and connected it with alligator clips to your tape recorder…

In the era of mobile phones, satellite phones, Skype, Twitter, Facebook and the rest, it's probably useful to describe how we did international journalism back then. The indispensable tool of my trade was the Nagra Mark 4 tape recorder. A marvel of Swiss engineering, it weighed about 8 kilograms with batteries, and you carried it over your shoulder. Colleagues from the time often grumble that the Nagra has kept more physiotherapists and back surgeons in business than any other piece of equipment outside the mining and construction industries.

The Nagra was as tough as it was heavy: years later, I saw one run over by President Mikhail Gorbachev's armoured limousine on the road out-side the Soviet embassy in Paris. An outraged French TV sound recordist turned on the machine only to find it still working: bent out of shape, yes, but still working. The reason you used the Nagra was that it really did work. Its technology ensured that, unlike some other reel-to-reel recorders, the tape always moved through the mechanism at the same speed. That meant no 'wow' or 'flutter' when the machine was being used in a moving vehicle or at walking speed (there was no real question of running with that much weight on your shoulder), or when the batteries ran down… For radio, the Nagra also had an editing block, on which you used a razor blade and quarter-inch sticky tape to cut your story together.

Along with all the technical details of life in the ABC, his descriptions and analysis of middle eastern politics from his first hand experiences on assignment, recreates with deep insight the politics, dangers and legacy of that historical period in modern history.

Les and l got back to the Tehran Intercontinental to find the place in turmoil, with milling journalists swapping rumours and trying to assess the situation. The consensus was that no-one was going anywhere till the end of Friday prayers: as we'd driven back to the hotel, sitting low in our seats so as not to draw attention, we'd seen vast crowds moving through the streets to hear the Ayatollahs' sermons. The question was how the clerics would react. Would they whip the crowd up into an anti-American frenzy, recalling the fervour of the year before in the immediate wake of Khomeini's return? Or would they take a more moderate stance? The NBC guys had some of their Iranian staff out on the street, and by the end of the morning we were fairly sure that it was the latter: the Sermons had all been along the lines of Our glorious Revolution has Survived, Allah has seen to it that the American Satan has been repelled once again. Allah o Akbar, Go back to your homes and rejoice.

But while this was a relief, the hotel and the city were still pullulating with rumours, chief among them that the Americans were now going attempt a second mission. Such was the atmosphere of fear that this idea had really taken hold, and a number of old Iran hands told me that, should it happen, the Intercontinental would certainly be besieged again…

The separation of powers between mosque and state was dead, for a generation at least. In the USA, most historians agree, the hostage crisis was a pivota factor in ending Carter’s presidency, and thus helping usher in the Reagan era. Economically, free-marketeers definitively defeated Keynesians, only in America but throughout the Free World. Strategically, Reagan obduracy also forced the events that led to the end of the Soviet Union, so this was also a key turning point in the Cold War.

The book moves between Mark’s professional career and flashbacks to his time as a boy during diplomatic postings with his father.

The low-key way his father chatted to contacts and gathered little bits of information so he could compile detailed reports for MI6 is similar to that way Mark went about the meticulous task of gathering information for his journalistic work. In the one quote in the book from one of Mark’s father’s MI6 reports, his father’s style of reporting is remarkably similar to Mark’s own radio reporting style

As a legacy, the book will enshrine a bygone era of media history and the life story of a man devoted to the honest pursuit of good journalism. The last word has to go to Mark Colvin:

If I have a journalistic credo, it's this: don't make up your mind before you've gathered the facts. Never start with a conclusion. Test your theories against the evidence. If the facts contradict you, change your thesis: don't try and crush the reality into your pre-planned script. Be one pair of eyes. Gather your facts, listen to others' opinions, cast your net wide. Then—and only then—draw your conclusions.

RIP Mark Colvin

Steve Ahern

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