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John Philip O'Hara (1927–2018)

by Malcolm Brown

John O’Hara, a country boy from a Labor voting family, whose schooling only extended to his Intermediate Certificate, rose in the journalistic spectrum to become a dominant reporting voice in New South Wales, to such an extent that Liberal Party Premier, Sir Robert Askin, was inclined to ask him what he should do. O’Hara was never reticent with his opinions – he was known to fly off the handle on occasions – but throughout his career maintained a journalistic integrity that colleagues could do little but admire. He was such a dynamo that in 1981, when he decided to retire at the age of 54, the former chairman of John Fairfax and Sons Pty Ltd, Sir Warwick Fairfax, tried to persuade him to stay.

John O’Hara did leave, after 27 years with the Sydney Morning Herald, but such was the force of his grasp of issues and his driving personality that he is remembered as a consummate professional.

John Philip O’Hara was born on January 22, 1927, in Darlington in inner Sydney, eldest of two children of poet and journalist Mervyn O’Hara and a railway worker’s daughter, Edna Kirkham. Mervyn died when O’Hara was only two.  A sister, Josephine, was born soon afterwards. Edna took the children to Bathurst to live with her widowed mother and grandmother and O’Hara grew up in a tiny rented house beside the railway line.  Future ALP Prime Minister Ben Chifley lived around the corner and Edna, like her late husband an ALP member, was a confidante of Chifley. Edna instilled in the young O’Hara a lifelong love of books and poetry.

O’Hara went on a scholarship to St Stanislaus College in Bathurst. He did well in the Intermediate Certificate but left at the age of 14 to take a cadetship with the local newspaper, The Western Times. Chifley wrote a reference: “I have known the bearer, John O’Hara, since childhood and found him to be very honest and reliable. He is a very intelligent lad and studious and I have no hesitation in recommending anyone desiring to employ him.”

O’Hara spent four years with the Western Times, then joined Sydney’s Daily Mirror in 1946, where in the library he met Elizabeth Liddell. “She could have passed as one of those fairyland sprites one sees (or saw) in illustrations in children’s books,” he wrote later. In February 1952, O’Hara left the Mirror to write a book, but found the going tough and took up a clerical job with the Navy. In December 1952, he joined the Sydney Morning Herald, turning down a lucrative offer from the Mirror. In March 1953, the Fairfax general manager, Angus McLachlan said: “Mr O’Hara has completed his three months’ trial … He is one of the best reporters on our staff, and I recommend that the appointment be confirmed.”

O’Hara and Elizabeth married in St Mary’s Cathedral on January 11, 1954. The first of O’Hara’s three daughters Jane, was born in November 1954 and O’Hara flourished professionally. In June 1957, the chairman of Cumberland County Council, Mr R.S. Luke, said, “Mr O’Hara’s reporting has always been fair and has evidenced an extensive knowledge of local government matters, which is obviously due to his very real interest in the subject. I wish to convey my appreciation of Mr O’Hara’s unfailing interest and courtesy.”

Daughter Louise was born in 1959, followed by Schaan in 1962 and O’Hara, moving to the Herald’s State Political Bureau, entered his golden age reporting on the era of Premier Robert Askin.  In the years that followed, his reporting ranged over the entire spectrum – education, transport, health, finance, Commonwealth-State relations, the Opera House, environment, organised crime, nude beaches, drought, extended hotel trading hours, The Rocks, Botany Bay, Sydney’s second airport. He was, in the words of journalist Geoffrey Reading, “the doyen of the NSW Parliamentary press gallery”. In 1973, Fairfax sent O’Hara to study the Federal systems of the United States, Canada, West Germany and Switzerland, so he could write authoritatively prior to Australia’s Constitutional Convention.

In 1976, Neville Wran on accession to the premiership began dismissing ministerial media advisers on the grounds that they were politically tainted. O’Hara was affronted. Journalist Brian Dale wrote: “Most of them accepted the position but John O’Hara from the Sydney Morning Herald would not. He knew the staffers involved and had been helped by them in the past and planned to keep on with these stories.” Journalist, Geoffrey Reading said in response: “The fact is that O’Hara was genuinely concerned at what had happened to fellow members of his union, the Australian Journalists Association.” O’Hara returned to the Herald’s main office as letters editor. In mid-1981, he felt burnt-out and disillusioned by what he saw as the taste of the public shifting away from “serious and responsible journalism”. Askin died in September 1981 and suggestions of corruption were made by the National Times, underlined more emphatically by author David Hickie.  O’Hara said there was no cogent evidence that Askin was corrupt at all and, though not uncritical of Askin during his years of coverage of state affairs, wrote in defence of him.

In December 1981, O’Hara resigned, aged 54, saying he wanted to keep writing but to explore issues in more depth. He remained fully alert on public affairs and wrote occasional articles. He was fascinated by new technology, black holes and other space phenomena and was a devotee of David Attenborough, Steven Hawking, classical music and his family. John O’Hara died on June 11, 2018 aged 91.  His funeral was held on June 22, 2018. He is survived by his wife, his three daughters, two sons-in-law, a grandson-in-law and nine grandchildren.

Original publication

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'O'Hara, John Philip (1927–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 June 2024.

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