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First the disclaimer: Fran Kelly is a dear friend of my family’s.
But also know this: it is a measure of her professionalism and dedication to journalism – which is to say, objectively parsing the facts and tailoring incisive questions – that friendship would never get in the way of a challenging “Fran” interview.
Over the years I’ve been on the other end of her mic a couple of times, including during publicity for a book I wrote about Canberra (something of a paean to a city I came to love and where I first encountered Kelly almost three decades ago when I was a newbie to the federal parliamentary press gallery).
Kelly, it seems, long ago having moved via London to Sydney to take up the arduous Radio National Breakfast slot, was rather less misty-eyed about the national capital.
She opened the interview with a line that went something like: “Well, I’ve always considered Canberra to be less than the sum of its parts.”
I froze, disarmed by her opener, then scrambled to connect those parts. Mates or no mates, this was no easy crossing. But it was the best and the most expository of the many interviews I did about that book.
That’s one of the many attributes of Kelly the interviewer – she knows her stuff. She has always read the book or listened to the album. Always got her head around the economic data, always parsed the political tea leaves and strategies of the politicians she grills.
Whether it is her famous interview with Tom Waits or another with Boy George, who sparked a social media meltdown a few years ago by hanging up on Kelly during a live interview 90 seconds in, or with every former prime minister still alive (and several who’re not), or her pressing (insistently, yes, but always temperately) showdowns with the thorniest, sometimes most obstructive or deliberately obtuse politicians – Liberal, National, Labor, Greens or independent – Fran Kelly is always prepared.
To do that day after day for 17 years, to rise at 3.30 am, to get across the domestic and international news, to get the tonal chiaroscuro – that alchemy of light and shade – just so, and to do it with such sunny countenance and unerring enthusiasm, is nothing less than a feat of Olympic intellectual, emotional and, yes, physical, endurance.
The early mornings are a killer. And that, we all understand and respect, is why it’s time for her to move on.
Fran’s has been the voice that sets up millions of Australians with what they need to know for the day. Weather. Politics – and lots of it. Culture (today that included the delightful new “Yellow Wiggle” Tsehay Hawkins). International affairs, or sport with the erudite Warwick Hadfield. Whatever the topic, she is never merely going through the motions.
Sport, I must say however, challenges Kelly’s objectivity. Specifically, her love of and ardent support for the Sydney Swans. “Go Swannies,” she’ll sometimes let slip at the end of one of those two daily Hadfield sport sections before a big game. She’s passionate about Australian rules (men’s and women’s), but she’s also just as tuned in to cricket, women’s netball (she used to play), rugby league and golf.
Not to mention the horses. One of the great annual joys of many of the past 17 years had been her Melbourne Cup Day chats to the late equine enthusiast (and former Liberal leader and Australian ambassador to Washington) Andrew Peacock. She’d always studied the form. Knew the jockeys and the bloodlines. She loves the gee-gees and the track.
Yes, Fran has spent years honing her knowledge and skills, working sources and cultivating trusted contacts, inside the political beltway. But her questions are always understandable and are accessible as her manner. Outside of that particular expertise, she’s an autodidact’s autodidact. She gets across everything and anything – quickly.
She can also sing beautifully – appropriate given her rock chick chic (the younger woman was in bands). Occasionally on radio she’ll sing a bar or two (you could just tell this morning how badly she wanted to back the legendary Renee Geyer).
Those fortunate enough to be in her orbit also know about her abiding compassion and great personal warmth. Then there is her acute modesty. Famous journalists are hardly defined by this trait. But Kelly, as evidenced this morning when thousands of tributes flowed in after she announced she’d soon be relinquishing the breakfast slot, is least comfortable when talking about herself.
Kelly’s friends have long marvelled at her endurance and profound dedication, wondering how she keeps it all up. She does, however, have a secret weapon: Marion Frith, her talented and oh-so supportive partner and most important critic. They deserve more time together after all of those early mornings and prematurely exited dinner parties and Sunday arvo barbecues (you won’t interview the PM at seven the next morning on no sleep or prep… Well, not if you’re Fran Kelly you won’t!).
But Australia can’t do without its beloved Fran either. And as the next federal election nears we are fortunate we’ll still have her insights and political interviews on the ABC. And much else besides.
For Fran will never retire. Nothing was plainer than that in her voice this morning whenever anyone uttered that word – retirement. “There’s life in the old girl yet,” she objected.
But right now we need to know precisely how and when we are going to keep hearing her. Because once she goes in December our mornings will never seem quite the same.
For Fran Kelly is, quite simply, an impossible act to follow.