Kerry O’Brien to reflect on career and new book at the Pioneer Theatre

He is well-known for his never back-down approach to getting answers to tough questions from world leaders, politicians, celebrities, and the best and the brightest of our time.

And veteran journalist, Kerry O’Brien will share tales from his 52-year career, when he takes to the stage at the brand new Pioneer Theatre in Castle Hill on December 5.

The six-time Walkley award-winner will also discuss his new book, Kerry O’Brien, A Memoir, which reflects on the big events, the lessons learned, the lessons ignored, and the decision shaping acts – some he was present for – which changed the world forever following World War II.

“I’ve been in journalism for 52 years and my life actually spans the whole of the post-war period,” O’Brien told Focus.

“I don’t think there have been any periods of history – in human civilisation – up until this point that had impacted us in such an intense way as the post war-age has.

“As a journalist and as an accident of the times, I was actually present for most of this or had the privilege to interview many of the people involved in our history.

“An [post-war] important time in human history, an unprecedented time and I guess I’ve been a witness to this history, and that’s what I’ve tried to reflect in the book,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said his second book, an 880-page meaty account, was “enjoyable” and “easy” to write, however the research behind it was “pretty time-consuming”.

While the former 7.30 Report frontman did spend a considerable amount of time reviewing, fact checking and trawling back through past interviews, O’Brien said he found some interesting surprises and patterns among the celebrities and politicians that he interviewed.

Former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, was one of them.

“Howard’s entire time as Prime Minister, which lasted for 11 and a half years almost exactly paralleled The 7.30 Report’s existence,” O’Brien said.

“I began that program [7.30 Report] with colleagues in December 95 and John Howard was elected in March of 96. In that time, I must of done nearly 100 interviews with him. And so, those interviews covered some of the big milestones of his Prime Ministership.

“What I was able to do was look at things he was saying at the time and compare them with what we knew was the facts of that time. What we also know to be a pretty significant degree is what he knew was true at the time and how that compared to what he was saying.

“One of the patterns that emerges very strongly throughout those years is the extent to which the country was divided on issues that he exploited politically. That was one thing that surprised me,” he added.

Another surprise O’Brien uncovered while writing his new book, was during the chapter called, “real celebrity”.

“I called the chapter ‘real celebrity’ because we are in an age of fake celebrity, where people seek the limelight for no great reason other than to be there,” O’Brien said.

“But the people that I featured in this book have earned their celebrity in the right way … and in the right sense. They were celebrated for making an enormous contribution to all our lives. People like Robin Williams, the comedian and great actor. Maggie Smith the English actor. Great writers like John La Care and Aaron Sorkin who pioneered The West Wing [ TV] series and some of the great singers of our time, including the legendary [David] Bowie, [Bruce] Springsteen, [Luciano] Pavarotti and so on,” O’Brien said.

“A lot of these people [real celebrities] self-medicated a lot of their lives because they were depressives. There is a big streak of depression that runs through those stories and people talked frankly of those things and gave us another perspective of their lives.”

O’Brien has worked in newspapers, television, a wire service and as a foreign correspondent.

During a period of 33 years, he built his reputation as a current affairs journalist at the ABC, scoring roles on This Day Tonight and Four Corners. He was also the inaugural presenter of Lateline for six years, the editor and presenter of 7.30 for 15 years, and the presenter of Four Corners for five.

Unlike many other presenters who knew they were destined for a career in the spotlight, O’Brien said he kind of “stumbled” into it.

“I was just about 20 when I cracked a weekend job at a very small television newsroom at Channel 9 in Brisbane,” O’Brien said.

“I’d really lost my way out of school and I had a vague intention to become a lawyer and go to university. I never made it to uni.

“When I walked through the door at that newsroom, that was my world and that’s what I wanted to do.

“It was the newsroom comradery, the sense of a common purpose to get the story out, the excitement when your story or a story from one of your colleagues goes to air, beating the opposition and the sheer adrenalin rush of it all. And it was the dawning realisation as I developed as a journalist that what I was involved in was truly quite important. That’s because journalism is one of the fundamental corner stones of a healthy democracy,” O’Brien added.

One thing that viewers of O’Brien’s shows will remember him for is his approach to getting answers to tough questions.

Some of his interviews uncovered surprising developments, while others resulted in some of his interviewees shutting him down and storming out.

Most notably, was his interview with the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who according to accounts, pulled her microphone off and walked out.

O’Brien said he always aimed to create content that would appeal to his viewers, including asking questions that his audience wanted the answers to.

“Like anything else, it involved trying to carry off a good interview which was always a challenge, especially with politicians. As the television industry developed, politicians became more and more adept at controlling the interviews and to a degree, manipulating them and learning tricks of the trade to obfuscate and avoid awkward questions at the time,” he said.

“I mean these were challenges and it did become something of a ground hog day towards my end of time at The 7.30 Report. It was one of the motivating forces to walk away at the end.

“But I always had a very clear view that these things were important and that fundamentally the audience had a reasonable expectation that their politician was going to generally engage and recognise they had a responsibility to the electorate.

“Time and again, not everyone agreed with the questions that I asked in the interviews. None the less, there was a great appreciation over the years that if I had exceeded or failed in an interview, that I was always trying to keep the politicians honest,” he added.

O’Brien puts his interviewing success down to research and a keen sense of curiosity.

“The most important thing for an interviewer is to be able to feel confident in the base of their research,” he said.

“If they understand the research you are about to discuss, you can have a degree of confidence that you are asking and the validity of what you are asking. It then is simply plotting a logical course through the interview and not being deterred by attempts to divert you.

“I came to also trust in my own curiosity over the years as reasonably aligned with most viewers and that comes with seasoning and the years I’ve put into the game. And if I walked away enjoying an interview with somebody, I had a reasonable expectation that the audience would also enjoy it,” O‘Brien added.

Catch Kerry O’Brien at the Pioneer Theatre this December as part of The Hills Shire Library Service’s author talks.

Tickets cost: $17.50.

Details: www.pioneertheatre.com.au.

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