HISTORY: Long-time host of ABCTV news program 7.30 Report, Kerry O'Brien, on his last day presenting it, in Sydney on December 9, 2010, a program he fronted since 1995. O'Brien then went on to anchor the current affairs program 4 Corners in 2011.
HISTORY: Long-time host of ABCTV news program 7.30 Report, Kerry O'Brien, on his last day presenting it, in Sydney on December 9, 2010, a program he fronted since 1995. O'Brien then went on to anchor the current affairs program 4 Corners in 2011. AAP/ABC TV

Kerry O'Brien, a witness of history

JOURNALIST Kerry O'Brien was born in the six or seven day-period between the Americans landing near Tokyo in 1945 and when they finally surrendered at the end of World War II.

"It's a sheer accident, but my life has neatly and completely spanned the whole of the post-war period," he notes.

That period is now the topic of a book his memoir, coming out next month via Allen and Unwin.

"To be a witness to history from the inside has been of enormous value to me," he admits.

He has been a witness to what he calls "an awful lot of historic events": he interviewed Margaret Thatcher, Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, but also the likes of David Bowie and people who have changed the history of humanity.

He recounts meeting "some of the great figures of our time", such as actor Robin Williams, neurologist and historian of science Oliver Sacks, British author John Le Carre and Chilean writer Isabel Allende.

As soon as he retired ("semi-retired!" he corrects us), he moved with his family to a property right on the border between Ballina and Byron shires, and has become a regular fixture within the Bangalow community.

It was here that he started this project of telling the story, from his experiences as child in Queensland to his professional endeavours.

"I enjoyed re-living my younger years on paper, but it got harder to write as I got older in the book, because the lives of your partner and your kids are their own and their privacies are theirs to protect," he admitted.

"The size of the book surprised me but it's an awful lot that I have covered, it's a book of many cameos and an insight into history."

O'Brien admits he thought he would never agree to face such a project.

"To be honest, I hadn't ever contemplated that I would do it," he said.

"Back even in in the Lateline years and in the 7.30 years, publishers would periodically ask me if I was interested in writing a memoir and would always say no.

But the main reason O'Brien cites for the writing of his memoir is the fact that he became increasingly horrified at the ease that people forget history, to our detriment.

"Particularly political history", he said.

"The older I've got the more I've witnessed that young people coming through with very big gaps in their history and their knowledge of not just Australian history, political and social, but also internationally."

What about our political elite?

O'Brien can't answer that, but admits sometimes is convenient for politicians to forget their history.

"Often when I'd interview John Howard, for instance. Howard had been in the political game for a very long time, he was Treasurer for five years under Malcolm Fraser, during which time inflation was very high, interest rates were very high and unemployment was very high.

"He didn't like it when I used to remind him of this when he was Prime Minister and he was complaining about previous Labor governments having a bad economic record.

"He would say 'that's in the past Kerry' as if it was no longer relevant."

"I've seen it again and again, there is a historic prospective to take on these things and I don't hear it."


Speaking about the things he's witnessed in Australian history and how it impacts today's coverage of news and current affairs, Kerry O'Brien mentions the ABC.

"I've always dealt with the ABC at length, which is back in the news, as it always is," he said.

His take on the recent events at the broadcaster is one of historical reflection.

"I've got faith that the ship will be righted again," he said.

"The ABC has such extraordinary support across the community on all sides of politics, besides the battering it's taken from the conservative side of politics for the last ten years or so.

"I lived through the Howard years which were very tough as an ABC employee, but this period has been tougher."

O'Brien thinks the current Federal government needs to re-think its position regarding the broadcaster.

"The government will discover, to its detriment, that going beyond constructive criticism of the ABC and conduct a vendetta is not going to be appreciated by the Australian people.

"You mess with the ABC and you mess with your own job security in the end."

"The ABC is always under scrutiny, it has been ever since I started in 1972, and it always will be, and in many ways it should be, but there is a difference between legitimate scrutiny and a vindictive campaign against it," he said.

  • At the Byron Theatre, 69 Jonson St, Byron Bay, on Sunday, November 11, from 6.30pm. For details visit byronwritersfestival.com.

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