Mark Colvin’s Fortunate Life

The ABC legend writes about growing into his career as a journalist and his father’s secret life as an MI6 spy in this extract from Mark’s memoir Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son.

Foreign correspondent Mark Colvin in Spain with cameraman John Benes, 1992

I’ve been a journalist for more than four decades. Yet I had no longstanding vocation to be a reporter before I became one. Even halfway through 1974, my first year as a trainee, I had real doubts about whether I would stick with the trade. I was one of those people who, at twenty-one, did not really know who they were, let alone who and what they wanted to be.

I did know I had a tendency to drift, and that some of the things I’d have liked to drift into — writing novels, making films — required more discipline about time and hard work than I thought I possessed. I wasn’t totally indolent — I’d achieved a perfectly respectable ‘good second’ BA (Hons) in English at Oxford — but above all I didn’t know what I was fitted for. I’d worked for nine months in a photographic darkroom at the Australian National University in Canberra, and for a while as a photographer at a local newspaper in the west of England. But, although competent, I thought I didn’t have the ‘eye’ to be as good as my photographic heroes, and that I was better at writing the captions than taking the pictures.

As a 20-year-old, I took a walk in the Suffolk countryside with a friend of my father’s, a man who’d made a lot of money in the Mad Men era in New York working for the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. He asked me what I wanted to do. ‘Write, I think.’ ‘What do you want to write about?’ ‘I’m not sure. I’ve just spent three years studying the greats, and that’s intimidating. And on top of that, I don’t feel I’ve done enough or seen enough to write a real novel.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘people who can write but don’t have a subject are generally advised to go into advertising or journalism.’ And he confided that before he made a fortune writing ad copy with Don Draper types in the Big Apple, he’d once edited an English dog-owners magazine called The Tailwagger.

In part, though, this is also the story of growing up, unknowingly, as the son of a spy. My father joined MI6 officially in 1951 but was in fact recruited two years earlier. He was not at my mother’s bedside when I was born because he was working in espionage: he climbed the ranks to seniority as an intelligence officer over nearly four decades, retiring just before I became a foreign correspondent. Until I reached adulthood, I knew nothing of the truth of his profession: even when I was told the truth, it was only a snippet of the whole story. Even now, I’m finding that some of the things he told me after his ‘cover’ was officially lifted were half-truths, and I’m having to accept that some were heavily embroidered, at best.

“A spy and a journalist, if they’re doing their jobs properly, are both trying to find out the truth behind the lies and propaganda, even if they use radically different tools”

As such, an element of psychodrama enters in: the possibility that I stepped unconsciously into a field of work that I thought was the opposite of what my father did, but may have only been so in the way that the reverse sides of a coin are opposite to each other. Running in a great circle, only to realise you’re almost back to what you were running from.

I grew up knowing that my father would never say much about what his work involved, and could be evasive or contradictory when he talked about it at all. But I thought that was normal among diplomats, especially on the ‘political’ side of the Foreign Office. He did not, as you will discover, formally reveal to me that he was a spy until I was twenty-five, though I’d pretty much reached that conclusion a year or two before. During my teenage and university years, we had disagreed vociferously about a lot, notably the domino theory of the Vietnam War and the relative merits of ‘authoritarian’ and ‘totalitarian’ regimes: he believed right-wing dictatorships were temporary by nature, whereas communist ones would never yield (like most of the intelligence community, he did not see 1989 coming). And so a substantial part of this book is an attempt to reconstruct, where I can, some of the parts of his life that I never really knew: the life of an active intelligence officer in MI6, which prefers to call itself the Secret Intelligence Service.

You are reading an edited extract from Light and Shadow (published by Melbourne University Press, 2016)

And there’s this: a spy and a journalist, if they’re doing their jobs properly, are both trying to find out the truth behind the lies and propaganda, even if they use radically different tools (or at least they did until the London tabloids started tapping people’s phones and hacking into their emails). But there will always be this great difference: the journalist is trying to reach the largest number of people with their exclusive information, while the spy’s audience is of necessity always tiny. So in some way, by trying to be as unlike my father as I could, I was perhaps not so different at all: for both of us, information gathering was our trade, and constant doubt and questioning the knives we wielded.

This is a paradox I might have anticipated before I started to write this book. The history of modern journalism can actually be traced back to ‘newsletters’ commissioned by wealthy merchants in Florence and Amsterdam in the Renaissance. Information was worth money in the finance world, then as now. The people who wrote those newsletters were not called ‘journalists’ but ‘intelligencers’. Perhaps intelligence is just reporting with a restricted audience: certainly my father once claimed that real intelligence ‘product’ was never more than a few per cent better or more comprehensive than what could be legitimately gleaned from a really careful combing and analysis of public sources.

The research I’ve done on my father for this book has yielded some surprises, and raised nearly as many questions as answers. As Adam Sisman’s recent biography of John le Carré demonstrates, even the ‘truth-tellers’ who abandoned MI6, like le Carré himself and Graham Greene, leave a trail of ambiguous and contradictory stories. The ones who stayed in for life, like my father, became even more habituated to deception, silence and ambiguity, habits encouraged by their employer, which keeps up its walls of silence for many decades longer than any other branch of government. So I have had to accept that I may have got some things wrong, fallen for ‘disinformation’ in some cases, or misunderstood some episodes. This is my memoir, not a definitive history, and I will have to live with that.

Aside from all that, this is also, I’ve realised in writing it, the story of a whole world, a way of living and a way of thinking, that has become quite remarkably foreign. It’s not only that I remember at first hand the early days of jet travel, and lived at a time when most intercontinental travel was still taken by sea. I didn’t see a television until I was eight; our family didn’t own one until I was ten or eleven. I remember when a radio small enough to put in your pocket was not just a novelty but a teenage life-changer. Memory, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, can make these things smaller than they really were: some days I have to ask myself, as young journalists occasionally ask me, ‘How did we do journalism before the internet?’

“I was also told at the very beginning of my career that the greatest virtue of a good journalist is simple curiosity, and a broad interest in history, art, literature, psychology and philosophy has, I like to hope, kept the worst excesses of cynicism at bay”

Somehow, Aunty, where the BBC voice was still pretty prevalent in those days, saw something in me and, stylish in a denim jacket with patch pockets and a pair of flared trousers, I turned up on February the eleventh 1974 at 164 William Street, headquarters of ABC News.

I was now, at least in name, a journalist, but I still didn’t feel like one. There were no journalism schools in Australia then. I had no complete sense of what the job might mean, or what it might lead me to.

The stories of my career in this book are, I hope, interesting in and of themselves, both because some record moments of high or low drama and sometimes historical significance, and because they all helped shape me as a person and as a journalist. Is there a difference, after four decades, or are the man and the trade inextricably entwined? I find it hard to tell, because so much of what I have absorbed as a reporter has become part of my personality. I react to much of what I encounter with an observer’s scepticism, and I sometimes have to rein in a tendency to be too detached. The journalist’s classic questions — What makes you tick? Where’s the money? Who really runs this town? Cui bono? (Who benefits?) What lies behind what you’re telling me? How will this actually work in practice? Why are you lying to me? Who are you loyal to and who would you betray, and for what? — have become second nature, to the extent that the greatest temptation and danger is cynicism. They also, again, almost uncannily, mimic the mindset of the spy.

But I was also told at the very beginning of my career that the greatest virtue of a good journalist is simple curiosity, and a broad interest in history, art, literature, psychology and philosophy has, I like to hope, kept the worst excesses of cynicism at bay. In other words, when I’m not working, I tend to read, and read, and read. And because I’m easily bored, my reading has always been wide and eclectic. It all feeds into who I am and what I am. Is there a difference between the who and the what? Who can say?

In the summer holidays of 1964, when I was twelve, I discovered the world of Sherlock Holmes, and over the course of a few weeks devoured it all. I’ve often thought that aspects of a reporter’s extended career can acquire a Sherlockian tinge — bouts of frenzied activity followed by torpid meditation — but more recently I’ve been intrigued by the relationship between Sherlock and his older brother Mycroft. Sherlock is driven to experience the world for himself. He is a pair of eyes, sometimes aided by a magnifying glass or a microscope, but one who uses his capacious learning and fierce intellect to interpret what he sees. Mycroft, who rarely leaves the Diogenes Club, however, is almost like a disembodied mind, a brain that uses the eyes of others to see the world, then processes it.

Always a Sherlock by temperament (though not of course by genius), I found that from the mid-1990s, illness and disability gradually forced me to accept that going out and finding the story, seeing it through my own pair of eyes, was becoming increasingly difficult and would eventually be impossible. Presenting the PM program was the Mycroft alternative. I have tried whenever possible to use the program as a vicarious pair of eyes upon the world. I’ve encouraged all my colleagues, from young trainees to seasoned foreign correspondents, to bring me, and through me the program’s listeners, a picture of the world through their eyes. If I sometimes push them harder than they expect for that first-hand view, it’s partly because I miss being on the road so much, and partly because I know from experience that the view on the ground is never exactly what the predigested words of the news agencies or edited pictures off the satellite suggest. It is this that makes real journalism so important: the plethora of different pairs of eyes on a subject, each trying to view it as dispassionately as possible, but each bringing a different perspective. And it is that pluralism — not a pluralism of opinion but of observation — that is most at risk in this era of declining news budgets and shrinking foreign bureaux.

Some of this book is a record of a time when there was still a large and amorphous entity called, loosely, ‘the foreign press corps’: when there were budgets and time to dig into stories at home and overseas. They were sometimes extravagant days, but they were also days when Australian journalism was a way to see the nation and the world and bring it to an Australian audience, from an Australian perspective. Too often now, the financial stringencies of cash-strapped news organisations mean we get the view as edited in New York or London, seen through British or American eyes.

I understand all the pressures, economic and otherwise, that have worked on the news business, but I still believe in the need for more well-supported Australian eyes on the ground. There has been some fine citizen journalism, and I know young freelancers who have done great work self-financing or crowdsourcing their reporting of the world, but I worry for their future. Journalism on a shoestring won’t support a reporter forever, and what’s needed more than ever in an increasingly sophisticated world is the depth of experience that underpins complex analysis in reporting.

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.

More than four decades at the ABC have given me the freedom to learn these lessons. I’ve not often been told what to write, and when I have, my counterarguments have usually been listened to. I know that there are many in journalism who have had far worse experiences with their bosses, and I feel no complacency about that. I’m aware, in other words, that what integrity I have has seldom been challenged. I’d like to hope that I’d have stood up to an overbearing editor with a one-sided political view who wanted me to change a story, or to a proprietor with vested commercial interests, but I’ve seldom been tested, so I have no intention of being self-righteous. Professionally, compared to so many others, I’ve mostly had a dream run.

So, like the legendary lost dog on the poster — ‘Three legs, blind in one eye, missing right ear, tail broken, recently castrated … answers to the name of “Lucky”’ — I feel that despite near-death experiences and chronic illness I have had what AB Facey famously called A Fortunate Life.

This is a record of some of it.

This is an edited extract from Mark Colvin’s memoir Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son.