On Sunday night Kerry O’Brien was inducted into the Logies Hall of Fame and received his award with a widely celebrated speech on the “failures of politics, failures of journalism [and] failures of society”. The following is a transcription of that speech. You can watch the full video here.
Thank you, Waleed. Thank you, everyone. And can I just say how pleased I am not to be receiving this award posthumously.
Television was only six years old when I discovered journalism in a tiny television newsroom, Channel Nine, upon Mount Coot-Tha, overlooking Brisbane. I worked for every commercial network, had some great shared moments and made lasting friendships.
The ABC has never been the sole bastion of good television journalism but I was always in my natural home at the ABC because the pursuit of excellence wasn’t just permitted, it was expected.
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As the importance of journalism became more and more obvious to me, absolutely fundamental to a healthy democracy despite its many imperfections — that’s the many imperfections of journalism as well as democracy — it also added more meaning to my life. And being paid to satisfy your curiosity and feed your imagination and have fun along the way didn’t hurt either. But the joy of it, the joy of it has been fed largely by my wonderfully collegiate culture that I experienced at all those terrific programs.
This Day Tonight, Four Corners, Lateline and 7.30, we all competed with each other vigorously but from a bedrock of mutual respect — even love. Those friendships have been incredibly important in my life. The other joy has been to watch new talent emerge and to feel that in some way, I’ve helped to nurture it. There have been the tough times, the budget cuts to the ABC again and again and again, driven more by a desire to punish and by an ideological obsession than because the public broadcaster was inefficient.
In my view, the day Jonathan Shier was appointed to run the ABC in the Howard years was the beginning of a dark time in that place. So, some of the best and the brightest were shown the door in that time. 7.30 was in the eye of the storm. I was described in headlines, as you saw a little while ago, as “dead man talking”. But on that program, we walked a straight line and allowed our work to speak for us. The program could have died in that era, but it’s still there — still going strong, still driven by good people, still accused of bias, but still walking a straight line. And the ABC is still forging its way through strong headwinds, probably never threatened more than it is today by a combination of forces, cash-strapped in a totally disrupted, digitally driven industry, and still confronting the same sad ideological prejudice.
And now, even the Federal Police — some of whom have themselves leaked to us in the past — have seen fit to raid the place. And yet as I sat here tonight and watched nomination after nomination after nomination for the ABC, including for most popular categories which rely on a public vote, I felt so much better about the place.
My message, my message to every person working in Aunty’s embrace today is simple: keep your heads held high and your eye firmly fixed on delivering programs of relevance, quality and integrity for people in every corner of Australia and those same people will repay your loyalty with theirs as they always have.
And to the rest of the country: don’t ever again allow politicians to diminish the public broadcaster. It is one of the most precious institutions we have. Along with reporting the bad news, my colleagues and I have told many stories of hope and inspiration, and mostly I’ve been proud to call my self a journalist. Yet, we the journalists have to share the responsibility for the great failures of our time. A time of enormous ferment and challenge, failures of politics, failures of journalism, failures of society in the end.
For instance 40 years after powerful evidence first kicked in that human-caused climate change threatened the world with an existential disaster, we’re still stuck in the mire of drab, dishonest arguments that will come at great cost to future generations and we the journalists have not cut through the fake news effectively. We have not properly held politicians to account.
But there is one big glaring gap in this nation’s otherwise great story that I want to spend a brief minute on tonight: the failure to reconcile Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. When I started my career, First Australians were not even counted in the national census. On paper, they didn’t exist. I was first personally exposed to the awful racism this country is capable of when I visited Alice Springs more than 45 years ago, and sadly you don’t have to go too far to see it still today. A trip to any prison will do it.
We all have an opportunity together in this term of the federal parliament to understand and support what is embodied in the Uluru Statement From The Heart. A remarkable document, forged in unity by more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander leaders, representing the oldest surviving culture on the face of the earth. [It’s] a culture that adds a richness that is unique to this continent and yet we other Australians are mostly ignorant of it.
The Uluru statement represents no threat to a single individual in any corner of this country, and certainly no threat to the integrity of parliament. And if you’re told that, don’t you believe it. On the contrary, it will add much to the integrity of our nation. We like to be seen as one nation made up of many parts. Now, it’s time to prove it.
The last and most important thing of all for me, personally tonight, is to acknowledge with gratitude and love the precious part family has played in my life and been so central to it. My children — and indulge me for 10 seconds here — Lara, Chris, Anthony, Jack, Ben and Meg; and my grandchildren, Joe, Gigi, Billy, Harrison, Tom and Mason have been at the centre of my life. Sue Javes, my wife and best friend for 40 years, warned me tonight not to say how much she’d helped me in my career — as Karl Stefanovic had said here at the Logies a few years ago, because it’d probably cost him a couple of million. Sorry darling, you’re going to have to lower your sights.
The truth is, I have been so lucky and so privileged to be able to call on Sue’s impeccable judgment, instinctive wisdom and good humour throughout our years together. She also told me to avoid using the word “journey” tonight. So I’ll close simply by saying: this has been a wonderful road to have been allowed to travel. Thanks to all of you, especially in the living rooms of Australia, who have travelled that road with me.