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Smith, George Charles Ivan (1915–1995)

United Nation diplomat, journalist, broadcaster, poet, critic, film-maker, author, editor, professor, jackeroo — George Ivan Smith did it all.

The son of a champion heavyweight boxer and New South Wales penal reformer — who often took young George with him on his prison calls — Smith began his professional life as a cadet reporter on Ezra Norton's Sydney Truth.

With an ambition to one day start a youth newspaper, Smith made his way to the ABC, created a weekly youth program, and was promoted, at age 24, to director of talks.

With the outbreak of war, he was chosen to quickly establish and then operate Radio Australia. Smith achieved the task in a matter of weeks, with the station beginning broadcasts of news and commentary on 20 December 1939.

At the end of the war Smith's information skills were sought out by the United Nations. He subsequently served three UN secretaries-general in senior positions in New York, London and, of most note, Africa during Zaire's turbulent years of transition to independence.

Writing in The Guardian, a former diplomatic colleague of Smith, Conor Cruise O'Brien, said: "I first became friends with George in what seemed singularly unpropitious circumstances 34 years ago. I was at that time personal representative of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in what was then still the breakaway province of Katanga, capital Elisabethville, in what is now Zaire.

"Hammarskjold had just been killed, but no new style or function had been assigned to me. At UN headquarters in New York, I was under a cloud. Also, I was felt to be talking too much to the press, and saying the wrong things. George, as the UN's senior press expert and a most experienced troubleshooter, was sent to Elisabethville, essentially to make me more amenable to the distant and disapproving Secretariat. Not, you might think, the ideal foundation for a beautiful friendship. And yet a beautiful friendship — which endured right until his death last week — was just what it turned out to be.

"I had had other visitors from headquarters before, and they had explained to me how I ought to see things. George proceeded otherwise. He began by finding out how I saw things.

He asked questions, listened attentively and put other questions, good ones, and clearly in no adversarial spirit.

"Within a few days, there was a full meeting of minds, not only over Congo questions, but generally. Both of us believed that the circumstances of Dag Hammarskjold's death remained mysterious and that foul play could not be ruled out . . .

"Humor was important to both of us. Also there was a cultural bond between us. George was an Australian of Irish origin . . . George, unlike myself, remained a United Nations person throughout his career . . . He was one of the most fully admirable people I ever knew.''

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 27 November 1995

Additional Resources

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Citation details

'Smith, George Charles Ivan (1915–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/smith-george-charles-ivan-27646/text37094, accessed 13 August 2020.

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