Rita Hamblin, ABC’s voice in a man’s world



If London still bore the scars of war, it was vibrant with life and possessed a cultural richness that was utterly bewitching for Rita. She was swept away by the bohemian life of the many expats in London at the time.

While Charles was working on his doctorate, Rita ended up teaching at one of the most difficult and disadvantaged schools in London’s East End. Her determination took on real meaning, she stared at the bullies in the class and got her job done. On one occasion, she asked her class what experience they would most like to have. They said they wanted to see snow. She had to deliver and therefore announced to the school that she was organizing a class excursion to Switzerland. Most of the kids had no money, no passports and had never left the East End, but Rita managed to make it.

Rita Hamblin (second from left) during her ABC days on Contact.

Charles received his doctorate in 1954 and was offered a position at the School of Philosophy at the University of NSW in Sydney. Charles wanted to take the job when Rita would have been happy to stay in London forever. She sent Charles home before her and left alone on a journey through Europe. Finally, she surrendered.

Although she was never to live in the Victorian capital again, she maintained that Melbourne was the top and most sophisticated city. When she didn’t like something about her new Sydney home, she would often say grimly that “the people of Melbourne would never do that”.

She accepted a job at the University of Sydney Government Department library, but quit her job when two girls arrived. But long-term stay-at-home motherhood was not for her. She was bored and frustrated with no outlet for her considerable energy. She had no desire to go back to class, but when in 1968 the ABC advertised for someone to produce a radio news show for elementary school children, she applied and was successful. .

At the age of 40, she began her career as a successful radio producer and journalist, which is no small feat as an older married woman with two young children at home. After producing the children’s news show for several years, she took over as producer of Contact, Australia’s first foreign language radio program and the forerunner of SBS.

The program was presented in a different language each week and covered news and events important to this cultural community in Australia, while also showcasing their music. Rita would bring home stacks of records from ABC’s record library and sit down late into the night playing them to choose songs for that week’s program.

She loved her work on Contact and the bond it gave her to the world outside of Australia, but she craved more action and wanted something with political edge. When a junior journalist position opened up in the ABC’s public affairs department – the department that produced AM and PM radio news shows – she took the plunge and got into radio journalism.

Radio Public Affairs was, at the time, run by Russell Warner, infamous within the ABC for his bullying and angry temper. Journalist and author Mark Aarons tells the story of Warner crushing a cigarette on the hand of a young journalist who had done something to make him angry. Aarons thinks the reporter was Rita. This is behavior that would have fired Warner today, had he not been charged with criminal charges.

Faced with his intimidating and bossy behavior, there was no way Rita would let him get the better of him and they had many explosive confrontations. Things came to a head when she was dismissed for promotion to a senior journalist position in favor of a younger, less experienced male colleague. Rita immediately filed an appeal with the support of Aarons and the ABC Staff Association. As the appeal failed, she took the matter to Federal Court.

ABC producer Rita Hamblin with her daughter Julie on Paros c.1986.

ABC producer Rita Hamblin with her daughter Julie on Paros c.1986.

Finally, after a deadly legal battle that lasted several months, the Federal Court ruled in his favor. The CBA was ordered to review the decision and she got the promotion she requested.

Rita flourished as a news reporter. She covered many of the great stories of the time: the sacking of the Whitlam government, the disappearance of Juanita Nielsen, the investigation into the Trimbole drug empire in Griffith, and Mum Shirl’s work in the aboriginal communities of Redfern.

In 1975 she was sent to Mexico City to cover the first international women’s conference for the ABC, then to Prague to cover the follow-up conference in 1981. She would have loved to be a foreign correspondent, but her family meant that she could not leave Australia. She has carved out a tremendous reputation for herself, anyone listening to AM and PM over the years would certainly have known the name and voice of Rita Hamblin.

When she wasn’t working, she and Charles were indomitable travelers. They have traveled together across Iran, the United States, Latin America, all of India, Indonesia and the Pacific.

But in the early 1980s, two things happened that were to cast a shadow over the rest of his life. The first was her daughter Fiona’s diagnosis of schizophrenia at the age of 22. Rita never came to terms with this. For years, she has denounced treating psychiatrists and traveled the world in search of alternative treatments. And then, when Fiona’s disease was still at its peak, Charles was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor in 1984. He died the following year. Rita was completely distressed. She returned to work at ABC, not in public affairs but as a producer of Late night live, a program she shaped in her early years, calling on Phillip Adams, David Marr, Yvonne Preston and others as presenters.

Eventually, she retired from ABC after more than 20 years. Still hoping for a cure for Fiona, she focused on providing a safe and secure home for her. She always traveled when she could, but she never completely trusted someone else to take care of her daughter as well as herself. With great effort, she made one last trip to Europe when she was well into her 80s.

Rita’s final chapter in life began in 2017 when she suffered a stroke that took away most of her functional sight. Despite the loss of independence that she had kept so fiercely all her life, she faced her disability with great courage and rarely complained. When it was no longer possible for her to be cared for at home, she agreed to move into a Group Homes Australia home in Waverley. She could be a demanding patient, but she also had sweet moments, when she was grateful, thoughtful and funny, even as her dementia progressed.

Rita has always said that she has had a rich and happy life. She herself was probably a little surprised at how far this young Melton girl had come. She’s been through a lot of history over the course of her 93 years and has certainly made a small part of that history herself.



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