Tommy Mur­phy puts Mark Colvin’s life on stage

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“I tried to ap­ply the Colvin tech­nique. Es­tab­lish trust. Lis­ten­ing is cru­cial. The best ques­tion is of­ten, Why? ”

I threw the cis­tern of his dead mother’s toi­let into a barge on the Thames. I turned to James Han­ning and said, “This is a bit fun.” He had ceased to be the deputy ed­i­tor of the In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day that week be­cause the print edi­tion folded. To cap it off, his mother had died and he needed to ur­gently re­move the con­tents of her par­tially ren­o­vated home. “No, Tommy,” he said. “This is not fun.”

Writ­ing a play, rum­mag­ing for the re­search to in­form it, reg­u­larly in­volves a glimpse into an­other per­son’s agony. It re­quires sen­si­tiv­ity – mine had mo­men­tar­ily crashed with the child­ish glee of be­ing al­lowed to break stuff. James had cour­te­ously replied to my emails to ex­plain his hor­ri­ble month and why it would be near im­pos­si­ble to meet. I asked if he needed a hand at the dump. “If you could face chat­ting while I drive around,” he wrote back, “that would be great.”

We hauled all morn­ing. There was no way this guy could have man­aged it on his own. The win­dowsill alone re­quired two, and then there was the shower re­cess and the crates of brick. He had been putting off this mourn­ful task. I wasn’t there just to be kind, but he thanked me for pro­vid­ing a dis­trac­tion. It oc­curred to me: only a stranger could have helped get this done.

As one of the lead re­porters of the phone-hack­ing saga, Han­ning was a close con­tact of Mary-Ellen Field, the woman who in­spired my pro­tag­o­nist. He ad­mit­ted to me that some peo­ple prob­a­bly still doubt her claims. Mud sticks. I need not have ex­pressed my out­rage. He knows Field cleared her name, that she did so in the most re­mark­able way. I tell him, “That’s what my play’s about. She proved them wrong.”

The project be­gan months ear­lier in Syd­ney.

The clomp of Mark Colvin’s walk­ing stick pre­ceded his en­trance. He moved with his rock­ing gait, then fell hard into his of­fice chair op­po­site me. I had been per­mit­ted to shadow him as he pre­pared to host PM, his nightly cur­rent af­fairs pro­gram on ABC Ra­dio. His years of chronic ill­ness are ap­par­ent but Mark is a stoic. He kept work­ing through dial­y­sis years ear­lier when his kid­neys were op­er­at­ing at 5 per cent. In his fa­mil­iar res­o­nance, he said: “I con­sider my­self a fairly fa­tal­is­tic per­son.”

Later, his son Wil­liam urged me to ask Mark about the time he bartered his life for cig­a­rettes. “Oh God,”

Mark re­sponded. “Ben­son & Hedges. I re­mem­ber the gold car­tons. Uganda. 1981. Check­point. With Les Sey­mour. Soldier both drunk and stoned: eyes like a red road map.”

Mark’s email re­ply was typ­i­cally prompt and tan­talis­ing. “… As we drove off, he let his AK arm drop down­wards, for­get­ting the safety catch was off, and fired sev­eral rounds into the tar­mac.”

In the cen­tral African city of Goma, amid a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in 1994, a man came at Mark with a ma­chete when he tried to cross a stream in the vol­canic rock. Mark’s life was spared on that oc­ca­sion be­cause he could ar­gue in flu­ent French and ap­ply past lessons deal­ing with “ar­se­holes with guns”. It was there, cov­er­ing the af­ter­math of the geno­cide, that Mark caught a rare ill­ness. His body bal­looned with fluid in hospi­tal back in Lon­don. His fam­ily were no­ti­fied. There were bed­side ex­pres­sions of love and farewell. Mark lived. He emerged from the hal­lu­ci­na­tory ef­fects of the cor­ti­sone they pumped into him – a life­sav­ing dose that would turn his joints to chalk.

In ABC head­quar­ters in Ul­timo, as the dead­line for his show ticked closer, Mark was as­ton­ish­ingly re­laxed. He pa­tiently told me sto­ries. He told me about nar­rowly fail­ing to board a ferry, MS Her­ald of Free En­ter­prise, from Bel­gium in 1987. It sank. One hun­dred and 93 lives were lost. Mark went from would-be vic­tim to reporter in an in­stant. It was a les­son in em­pa­thy. He re­called knowing who wanted to talk, who needed to talk.

He ap­plied those in­stincts when he sent a tweet in Jan­uary 2011 to the then mostly dor­mant ac­count of @maryel­len­field. “A shot in the dark re­ally.” He needed an Aus­tralian an­gle to keep the phone-hack­ing saga at the fore­front of PM. “To tell a story,” he said, “you need peo­ple.” I con­cealed the notepad I was writ­ing in. “You’re telling me, mate,” I thought. There was al­ready a ti­tle scrawled on the page: Mark Colvin’s Kid­ney. I won­dered when and how best to ob­tain his per­mis­sion.

Strik­ing a rap­port is key, Mark told me, es­pe­cially when the in­ter­vie­wee is un­cer­tain about the process. Some­thing unique oc­curred when Mary-Ellen Field re­sponded to Mark Colvin’s tweet. More than the req­ui­site rap­port, con­ver­sa­tion drifted to a shared love of po­etry, art and his­tory. Dis­tance af­forded a fast in­ti­macy. Their cor­re­spon­dence be­came in­valu­able in MaryEllen’s darker mo­ments as she fought for jus­tice.

“You may well have heard about the saga in the UK of Ru­pert Mur­doch’s Sun­day tabloid the News of the World and its wide­spread hack­ing of celebri­ties’ phones and voice­mail mes­sages,” Mark said in his in­tro for their first in­ter­view, now a mono­logue in my play. “What you may not have heard so much about is the col­lat­eral dam­age to peo­ple in the celebri­ties’ or­bits.”

Mary-Ellen had been sought after as an in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty ex­pert. She landed top in­ter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions as her clients. Even the United States Trea­sury called on her skills, as did the su­per­model Elle Macpher­son. In a card to Mary-Ellen, she wrote: “You changed my life in ways you never know.” In Oc­to­ber 2005, that same loop­ing cur­sive praised Mary-Ellen for her end­less days of ded­i­ca­tion both to Elle per­son­ally and to her brand. “I re­ally re­ally re­spect and ap­pre­ci­ate it.” Then it all fell apart.

That card is telling. It is sent the month be­fore Elle ac­cused Mary-Ellen of be­ing an al­co­holic. It dis­plays the close prox­im­ity of mat­ters per­sonal and com­mer­cial. Mary-Ellen’s ad­vice was val­ued for more than deals and lin­gerie con­tracts. She at­tended meet­ings with the fam­ily lawyer. She was a con­fi­dante to call in tears in the mid­dle of the night. Elle’s card also makes claims of love and re­spect. Those claims are true. Elle be­lieved she was act­ing prop­erly when the leaks hap­pened. The ev­i­dence be­fore her was a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle quot­ing an un­named source. The con­tents and the dis­tinct id­iom pointed to Mary-Ellen. Elle did not then know that she was the vic­tim of hack­ing by News of the World. No­body guessed it, de­spite the sim­plic­ity of the hacker’s trick. In the early and mid-2000s many did not bother to al­ter the fac­to­ry­set pin on their phone. Elle’s mes­sages, when ac­cessed re­motely via that pin, proved a trea­sure trove of car­ing, se­cret ad­vice from an ar­tic­u­late busi­ness ad­viser and friend. Un­sus­pect­ing of the ma­li­cious eaves­drop­ping, Elle con­cluded that her loyal lieu­tenant would only stoop to such be­trayal if she were suf­fer­ing from ad­dic­tions and men­tal col­lapse.

Mary-Ellen was sent to a celebrity re­hab in Ari­zona. Her dis­charge sum­mary lists the ref­er­ent as “Ell Macpher­son”. It notes 33 days of treatment span­ning Christ­mas 2005. It was con­cluded that Mary-Ellen Field was nei­ther an al­co­holic nor in an un­trust­wor­thy frame of mind. She only agreed to the re­hab to pro­tect her job, a de­ci­sion that was ul­ti­mately fu­tile and served to feed ru­mour. Mary-Ellen re­turned to her work­place to dis­cover Macpher­son had with­drawn her ac­count with the firm. Mary-Ellen was soon shown the door. She had been at the peak of her ca­reer. Now her rep­u­ta­tion was in a nose­dive and so was she. She started to blank out with­out warn­ing. It was a sig­nif­i­cant im­ped­i­ment for a woman seek­ing em­ploy­ment and to dis­prove al­co­holism. Doc­tors spent years try­ing to di­ag­nose her vaso­va­gal syn­cope, a neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tion ag­gra­vated by stress.

I con­tacted her and tried to ap­ply the Colvin tech­nique. Es­tab­lish trust. Lis­ten­ing is cru­cial. The best ques­tion is of­ten, Why? With her per­mis­sion, I recorded our Skype con­ver­sa­tions. I be­gan: “So can you tell me how this went from a tweet to an or­gan do­na­tion?” I heard her ter­rific laugh for the first time. “As you can imag­ine, jour­nal­ists were not my favourite peo­ple.”

A film fes­ti­val soon gave me the op­por­tu­nity to meet Mary-Ellen in Lon­don. She in­sisted we go bik­erid­ing to cure my jet lag. I was pedalling among the deer in Rich­mond Park with my pro­tag­o­nist, ask­ing ques­tion after ques­tion about a pri­vacy that had al­ready been vi­o­lated. She would fol­low up our chats by for­ward­ing the doc­u­ments she kept, in­clud­ing ex­changes via text, email or Twit­ter with Colvin. She had learnt to ar­chive ev­i­dence. “Woah,” I thought, “I’m ef­fec­tively hack­ing this poor woman.”

This time, how­ever, it was Mary-Ellen’s choice.

She wanted the story told, just as she had as a core par­tic­i­pant at the Leve­son in­quiry or when she at­tempted, un­suc­cess­fully, to sue News In­ter­na­tional, the owner of the now-de­funct News of the World, in the Royal Courts of Jus­tice. “All one can say is that you’ve cor­rectly de­scribed your own po­si­tion,” Lord Leve­son told her. “The col­lat­eral dam­age of what some­body else did to the per­son for whom you worked.”

As her quest for jus­tice gath­ered pace, as rev­e­la­tions of a hacked mur­dered school­girl’s phone had Mur­doch on the ropes, as the po­lice and par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tees probed the full ex­tent of the crimes, the “pen­pal” help­ing Mary-Ellen tell her story fal­tered. Sep­ti­caemia had re­turned. Dial­y­sis failed. Mark Colvin was at risk of de­vel­op­ing a re­sis­tance to an­tibi­otics. He was con­tem­plat­ing death once more.

Mary-Ellen stared out at a misty sun­rise on the other side of the world and set her sights on a new ob­jec­tive. She was sure that she had been put on this earth to save Mark’s life. She won­dered even if the tur­moil she had en­dured had all led to this mo­ment. “I couldn’t un­der­stand why I had such strong feel­ings about it, we’d only ever spo­ken on the phone, emailed and texted each other.” She made her of­fer of a kid­ney via text mes­sage. Mark ig­nored her. Then, when pressed, flatly re­fused.

He feared for her health, given her var­i­ous com­pli­ca­tions. He wor­ried also that the way they had met – hadn’t met ac­tu­ally – would sug­gest co­er­cion. We’ve heard of cash for com­ment, what would that make this ar­range­ment? Her claims of some spir­i­tual cer­tainty only fu­elled Mark’s pro­fes­sion­ally trained scep­ti­cism. “She had to bat­ter down my de­fences.”

The process of or­gan do­na­tion in Aus­tralia is fa­mously strict. The doc­tors as­sessed Mary-Ellen, phys­i­cally and psy­chi­atri­cally. She went through the ringer to prove her gift was purely al­tru­is­tic. It was con­clu­sive that the tis­sue match was like that of si­b­lings and that Mary-Ellen was never an al­co­holic. Mark was within days of death when the do­na­tion oc­curred. And Mary-Ellen Field gained much. “Giv­ing Mark my kid­ney fills me with such joy ev­ery day. Knowing I saved his life helps me to cope with the ter­ri­ble in­jus­tice I’ve suf­fered. It’s very hard to find out that some peo­ple are above the law. I have com­pletely lost faith in the jus­tice sys­tem, which I now re­alise only works for the rich and pow­er­ful. I know I will never get jus­tice and it does get me down, but I try to off­set that with the knowl­edge that Mark has had al­ready four years of life he would not have had. So some­thing good has come of it. Mur­doch and Elle will never be held to ac­count but then they’ll never know what it feels like to save a life.”

Now it’s for oth­ers to in­habit the char­ac­ters

I’ve tried to know. Stage man­age­ment memos grant a glimpse of Sarah Peirse’s Mary-Ellen. “Ms Peirse has re­quested that for this scene she is wear­ing the flat sporty shoes that she wears in act one, scene six. This is due to her need­ing to do a con­trolled fall, which she can­not do in slip­pers.” It of­ten starts with the shoes, get­ting the feel for an­other’s stride. “Mr Howard is very fond of a par­tic­u­lar walk­ing stick,” reads an­other note. “It is marked with white tape.”

I at­tend a re­hearsal room run. The ac­tor John Howard clomps his prop across the elec­tri­cal tape on the floor that in­di­cates the dimensions of the Belvoir St Theatre stage. He makes his en­trance, sum­mon­ing Mark’s rock­ing gait. He sends that tweet. Their

• re­la­tion­ship be­gins.

TOMMY MUR­PHY is a playwright and screen­writer.

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