Books Australia

Leftist wonderland

26 January 2019

9:00 AM

26 January 2019

9:00 AM

Kerry O’Brien in his mammoth memoir argues that his decades of ABC TV presenting were not Left-biased. It’s an easy accusation as he was press secretary to Gough Whitlam and Lionel Bowen, and wanted the same role with Bill Hayden. But he says no-one has yet demonstrated a Labor bias in his interviewing.

Here, for example, is his opening question to Prime Minister Rudd, mid-2010:

O’Brien: Can you clear up a puzzle for me first…

Rudd: I’ll try, mate.

O’Brien: … You’ve spent the best part of two years building up your political capital. How have you managed to damage brand Rudd so comprehensively in such a short time this year?

Interviewing Paul Keating, O’Brien, who had interrupted, got this back: Why don’t you have this interview by yourself? You could talk for the whole program… Maybe I could just sit here and you could carry on with a monologue. (Amusingly, O’Brien’s Keating biography is only 816 pages long, shorter than his own.)

O’Brien 73, fronted Lateline for six years, 7.30 Report for 15 years and Four Corners for 5 years, collecting six Walkley Awards. For decades political tragics followed federal events and elections as filtered through O’Brien. His memoir covers (excessively) his family ancestry, his own life story (plenty of revelations), political history and my-best-interview transcripts from Obama and Mandela down. He finishes with a slab of his own political views which will have any conservative retching.


He was educated in a Catholic school in Brisbane with class sizes of 80-110. One kid in Grade 7 got 17 cuts in a single day.

After a delayed start he learned fast by job-hopping between print, radio and TV. He has some macabre stories such as watching his TV station’s coverage of the  Viscount airliner crash near Winton in 1966, with 24 fatalities. The director rolled in the next scheduled ad break. Up came an advertisement for Viscount cigarettes, accompanied by a jingle: ‘Light up a Viscount, a Viscount, a Viscount, light up a Viscount, and light up your day.’ We all just looked on, incredulous.

Even worse reading today: At the 1971 State Labor Conference at Surfers Paradise, the young politician Bill Hayden moved two resolutions: one to ban professional boxing, and the other to legalise homosexuality. His state president, Jack Egerton, calling for a count on the second, remarked: ‘Gawd, I can’t follow delegate Hayden. He’s opposed to a bloke getting a punch on the nose but doesn’t mind if he gets a punch in the bum. Those supporting the chairman to the right, poofters to the left.’

On joining Opposition Leader Whitlam as press secretary in 1977, he dropped in to the next-door office of Whitlam’s deputy Tom Uren to say hi. He was ushered out with the advice that Uren and Whitlam weren’t on speaking terms and Uren’s chief of staff had banned all contact with Whitlam’s staff, as stunning an illustration of dysfunction as you could imagine.

As for the current crop, he blasts Bill Shorten as a weak leader installed by the same faction that despatched Rudd and Gillard, and as one respected senior Labor figure told me recently, has now stacked the Labor side of the Senate with party hacks. He loathes Tony Abbott and implores the Liberal party to return from the right to the Menzian centre. He writes, It is still startling to contemplate how Malcolm Turnbull built the nation’s hopes so high with his manifesto for a better nation when he challenged the Popeye of Australian politics, Tony Abbott; and how quickly he destroyed those hopes because he wasn’t a strong enough leader. Popeye ate spinach, not raw onions, and if O’Brien thinks Turnbull embodied the nation’s hopes, he needs to get out more.

Another whom O’Brien likes is John Hewson, Liberal opposition leader 1990-94: relaxed, personable, broad-thinking and today, potentially, a much more attractive proposition for the electorate. No wonder the ABC has Hewson on every five minutes.

O’Brien offers the government an even more poisoned chalice. Oozing compassion for ‘refugees’ – no mention of drowned ones – he pleads for a bi-partisan solution team led by our best-credentialed, most respected international elder statesman – to wit, Labor’s one-time foreign minister Gareth ‘Biggles’ Evans. O’Brien suggests, That would show intent. That would be leadership. Perhaps a truly bi-partisan effort with another ex-Foreign minister, Julie Bishop.

O’Brien’s an encyclopaedia of Leftist clichés and memes. He even seems equivocal about the fall of the Soviet Union which left capitalism exposed. It no longer had an enemy to point at and say, there’s an ism that’s worse than us… He had wondered if capitalism would get even nastier because of its baser instincts and hunger for profits.

Trump derangement? You bet. Mr Mueller can wrap up his inquiry – O’Brien has confirmed Russian collusion.

He quotes an obscure third party, a ‘Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times’, to warn that fascism is now a clear and present danger with the pre-fascist Trump giving it a trial run assisted by an advanced propaganda machine: One of the basic tools of fascism is the rigging of elections—we’ve seen that trialled in the election of Trump. Says O’Brien, I hope your interest is piqued enough to read the rest on-line, but you get the idea.

He also suffers derangement about that supposed extreme ideologist Rupert Murdoch and he laments the moral decline of the Australian, which loves to shut down important policy debates. The Age and SMH, by contrast, sit vaguely around the centre in their political coverage.

O’Brien almost flew high. He writes that in the early ‘90s, he declined one offer to become editor-in-chief of the SMH, and another to become 2IC at the ABC as head of news and current affairs.  When David Hill departed as ABC managing director in 1995, O’Brien made his run. He figured management involved mainly informed common-sense and anyway, he had interviewed a lot of managers and management theorists. I felt I understood the ABC implicitly and, like any good manager, would organise the talent around me to fill in the gaps. Brian Johns won the tussle, with O’Brien believing he placed third or fourth out of 11. An ABC under O’Brien would be a Leftist Wonderland to behold. He hopes in retirement to become a gentler character. Journalists, he concludes, should not only bear truthful witness but ask what society might aspire to be. I’m not sure your aspirations would suit everyone, Kerry.

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