More than 35 years ago a wide-eyed Brisbane boy walked into the Sydney bureau of Australian Associated Press. It was a time when rattling telex machines delivered AAP copy to newsrooms around the country and bells signalled an important breaking story.
Mike Osborne, who had driven his tiny Toyota from the sunshine state, quickly realised he was in good hands. Beside him was gun police reporter Les Kennedy - whose name is now honoured by excellence in journalism awards - and bureau chief Tony White, a Walkley winner.
Ozzy, as he was to become known, was fresh from a cadetship with Brisbane’s Suburban Express. In Sydney he soon found himself staring at a dead body in Kings Cross, thinking he was not in Kansas anymore. The son of gifted ballroom dancers, by 16 he was Queensland’s quickstep champion going on to rub shoulders with a young Sonia Kruger during her Strictly Ballroom heyday as Tina Sparkle. But a passion for breaking news and the craft of journalism drove him to pursue an interstate news reporting gig in 1984, never dreaming of where it would one day land him.
“If you had told me as a very long-haired, flannelette shirt-wearing university student that I was going to be editor of the national news agency for more than a decade I never would have believed you,” Osborne says.
After a stint in Canberra, he joined the sports desk where he would cover six Olympics and the same number of Commonwealth Games. He led the AAP team at the Athens, Beijing and London Olympics, and in Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur for the Commonwealth Games. But it was as London bureau chief in 1990 that gave Osborne his most memorable career moment.
He was sent to South Africa to cover a visit by the then foreign minister Gareth Evans. It was the first time in 40 years an Australian government minister had visited the apartheid-torn country. The trip coincided with the release of Nelson Mandela who Osborne regards as one of the most awe-inspiring people he’s come across. Rubbing shoulders with Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu comes in at a close second. Following three years in London, Osborne spent two years in Beijing before coming home to be finance editor.
There were also lots of dreaded overnight shifts early on with AAP. “I loved getting home at 7 when everyone else was going to work,” he recalls.
“I liked the shift work and always thought it was the romantic side of journalism.”
One of Ozzy’s memorable stories is a moment during the Seoul Olympics In 1988. He was covering the weightlifting events when Hollywood megastar Arnold Schwartzenegger made an appearance. With no seats left in the grandstand, Osborne quickly persuaded his media colleagues to make room for The Terminator. It was that type of quick-thinking for a potential news opportunity that helped propel his career from strength to strength and finally to his appointment as editor of AAP.
It’s a 24/7 job: fielding phone calls and emails from AAP staff around Australia and overseas any time of the day. Out of hours and on holidays, Ozzy made a point of being contactable. There were many Friday and Saturday nights spent on the phone talking about legal problems instead of enjoying family time. That dedication to the job - amongst other attributes - made him the worthy inaugural recipient of the Spirit of AAP award, personally selected by company chief Bruce Davidson.
Overseeing staff redundancies gave AAP’s outgoing editor some of his toughest moments in the job. “Watching great news empires shrink and to see what the internet has done to the news and the impact it's had on us, that's been the hardest thing,” he says “I wish someone had been able to warn me about that.".
“We lost a lot of people who had been here for a long time, we lost a lot of friends.”
Under his watch, AAP has doubled down on its no-dickhead culture with Osborne maintaining an open-door policy. He regards close colleagues, some of whom he’s worked with for 35 years, as brothers and sisters.
“Everyone says when you leave AAP the hardest part is to leave the people."
“In a way, it feels like one big family.”
After more than a decade as editor, Osborne feels it’s time to change course. Travel with his wife and fellow journalist Louise Evans is a priority, and there’s plenty of stories that could fill the pages of a book. “It’s such a great job,” Osborne says of being AAP editor. “You get to witness and be part of deciding how history is going to be reported as things happen, you really get that close-up of what’s happening in the world.”
Does he have any helpful advice for incoming editor Andrew Drummond? Sort of. “Always keep your phone handy and don’t plan too many Friday and Saturday nights”, he says.
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