Kerry O'Brien's memoir hones the first draft of history

Kerry O'Brien will speak about his 50-year career in journalism at the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival next month

Kerry O'Brien will speak about his 50-year career in journalism at the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival next month

The book might be called Kerry O'Brien: A memoir but this 871-page tome, complete with references and index, contains few deeply personal revelations. It's more like a social and political history of Australia from 1945 onwards, related by someone whose job put them right in the thick of it every day.

So the author, one of Australia's most distinguished current affairs journalists and winner of six Walkley awards, will be discussing both his life and his times when he comes to the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival for the June long weekend.

"To me, it was always much more about the history than about any life story of mine," Kerry said. "The appeal was bringing a personal view to the big milestones of what has been a momentous period in our civilisation."

The backdrop to Kerry O'Brien's 50-year career has been the nuclear age, the space age, the digital age, and now the age of climate change. We've had the rise of new wave feminism, the collapse of the Soviet Empire and an end to apartheid in South Africa. The shock of 9/11. America's first black president, Australia's first female prime minister.

"It's not just the fact that I was a journalist, but the kind of work I was doing and the organisations I've worked for meant that basically I had a ringside seat for a great deal of it," Kerry said.

Although he is most famous for his later years with the ABC's 7.30 Report, Lateline and Four Corners, during the first decade or so of his career, Kerry hopped from one job to another, from TV to print and back again, from commercial media to the national broadcaster, from rural paper to city tabloid, from wire service reporter to foreign correspondent, never staying in one spot for more than a few years.

"I've always been restless," Kerry said. "So I was very happy to take the advice of my first mentor when I was a young cadet at a very small Channel 9 newsroom in Brisbane. A guy named Charlie McCarthy, who said to me, 'In your early years at least, Kerry, you've got to be prepared to move around if you really want to learn journalism'."

Part of that quest for new experiences included a stint as press secretary for Gough Whitlam in 1977, a choice that was to later fuel charges of left-wing bias from conservative politicians.

But Kerry is content to let his work speak for itself.

"The moment I stepped back into journalism, I went back to being a professional reporter: endeavouring to report, reflect and analyse all the stories I did honestly, accurately and fairly," he said.

He also argues that his time as a Labor staffer made him a much smarter political journalist.

One of the benefits of working for Whitlam was to see the nature of power close up

Kerry O'Brien

"I've seen power from the inside as well as the outside. One of the benefits of working for Whitlam was to see the nature of power close up. How it functions and how it works inside the political process."

As well as regularly dissecting the policies and promises of Australian politicians with his razor-sharp questions, Kerry O'Brien has also interviewed world leaders like Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Barack Obama. And many eminent artists and scientists: David Bowie, Robin Williams, Oliver Sacks, to name just a few.

Kerry said that in preparing for such interviews, you do a great deal of research and reflection. In writing the book, he revisited old recordings to trigger his memories and added another layer of analysis to the 'first draft of history' that daily journalism is said to be.

"Sometimes the bigger, more significant aspects of history are not immediately evident to us," he said. "And just working day to day, you don't dwell on what you've done because you're always working on the next thing. So I was able to sharpen my own perspectives by going back and looking at those more crucial interviews."

Kerry said the whole project - researching and writing - took about two years, and as it progressed, he did have some qualms about how big the book was becoming.

"I kept saying to Sue [Hines, from Allen & Unwin], look this is clearly going to be long, how are we going to get it down? But every time I'd offer to take something out, she'd say I should leave it in.

"On the one hand, I was a little bit frustrated by the fact that I'd produced this long book. I think people hesitate before they will buy big books, particularly big hardback books. I knew that was a potential hurdle to sales. But on the other hand, none of us could see a way of cutting it and the publishers kept telling me they thought it was a very good book."

And reassuringly, the sales have also been very good.

"It came out just before Christmas, it was up there on the lists and pretty much all of the hardcovers sold out, and there's a print run of the paperback coming out at the beginning of May."

Just in time for Mothers' Day.

Kerry O'Brien will be at the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival on June 8, on a panel discussing '21st Century News and Information' and also June 9, in conversation with Debbie Spillane about his book for a session called 'A Life in Journalism'.

Kerry's pick of his three most memorable interviews

Nelson Mandela in 1995: "an enormous opportunity and privilege for me, because I still regard him as the greatest political leader of my lifetime".

Barack Obama in 2010: "You don't often get the opportunity to interview an American president. The uniqueness of it was interesting and stimulating for me."

Paul Keating in 1992: "A half-hour one-on-one interview where I forensically went back over the first 12 months of his plan to bring Australia back from recession. To Keating's credit, even though it was not an interview he was particularly enjoying, he responded to the spirit of it. He got increasingly annoyed but nonetheless he kept genuinely seeking to answer the questions."