Farewell, James Dibble  
ABC Managing Director Mark Scott delivered this eulogy at the funeral of former ABC TV newsreader James Dibble, on Friday.  

20/12/2010

For generations of Australians, James Dibble was the face and the voice of the ABC.

So many of us grew up with him as a regular, reassuring presence in our homes. As children, we were told to be quiet as the Majestic Fanfare started up. James Dibble was about to read the news.

And when he died earlier this week at the age of 87, it was sad but appropriate that many learned the news from Juanita Phillips as she read the 7pm ABC bulletin.

We know there was much more to Jim than his career, but his life was all the more remarkable for the special relationship of trust he developed with so many Australians for so many years.

It is interesting to reflect how Jim's death generated news stories and radio interviews, talkback calls, a flood of memories: all about the career of a man who retired more than a quarter of a century ago.

It speaks of the importance of the man he was, the work he did, and the impact he had on our lives.

As we know, he was the first person to read the news on ABC television when it first went to air in 1956. He was obviously unflappable right from the word go - because there was not supposed to be a News bulletin that night. It had to be improvised at the last minute, because Russia had just invaded Hungary.

It was Jim's persistence, his determination to develop a career in broadcasting and get away from the Canberra winters where he worked with 2CA, that had finally got him in the door with the ABC in Sydney.

He said he had tried commercial radio stations in Sydney first, thinking that you needed to be an Oxford don to land an ABC job. But the commercials wanted him to have more experience and the ABC took him in - for a job in the accounts department.

Soon it was the audience's gain - and the account department's loss ? that his broadcasting career with the ABC commenced. James later left the ABC for two years to go to 2GB, but then wrote to General Manager Charles Moses asking for a job in TV.

"I wanted to be part of the new medium," he said "and I trained myself at home with lights, a movie camera and a tape recorder."

Ken Inglis, in his History of the ABC, writes that the transition from radio to television was to create many challenges for radio announcers - not unlike the way silent movie stars needed to make the transition to talking pictures.

When Jim passed his screen test and was selected as a television pioneer, Inglis writes that "some of Dibble's colleagues wondered whether his homely and bespectacled face would survive on screen for long."

They were wrong. 27 years wrong.

On television, Jim presented with this serious integrity, a sense of genuine warmth and connection.

In the early days, before satellite links, coaxial cables and rapid turnaround of filmed content, nearly all of the bulletin would be him reading. And to the end, he didn't like the autocue, instead reading ahead from his notes and delivering flawlessly.

He was conscious of his responsibility. In a marvellous interview he did with Simon Marnie on 702 Sydney a few years ago, Jim told of reading the morning bulletin on radio that brought the news of the death of King George VI. He said he deliberately slowed his delivery down, knowing his audience would be struggling to absorb the momentous news.

From the beginning and throughout his career, he was a craftsman as a communicator - our trusted link with the most significant events from our city, our country, our world.

And as television grew from 1956, so did Jim's presence in so many Australian homes. He brought us the big stories: wars, assassinations, the moon landing.

And when you think of the way Australia changed between 1956 and 1983 - he was a reassuring figure of quiet authority and stability through often turbulent and fast-changing times.

He spoke with a great clarity, winning him awards of which he was proud. He spoke with an Australian voice to the Australian people - contrast to the clipped British accents that were a hallmark of the early days of ABC radio.

And that look -o normal. Teeth and smile a little crooked. Hairline receding. One of us. Not the least bit slick or superficial. Not trying to sell us anything. Just to tell us as clearly and simply as possible what we needed to know. He was such a professional.

The audience, of course, loved him and felt they owned him. He was part of the family and was often treated as such. A new set of glasses could send the switchboard into meltdown. If he was sick for more than a night or two, again there would be a flood of concerned calls. He was a constant presence. A companion to so many; a dear and trusted friend.

I love the fact that a man who had thought of a career in the theatre, read his final television news bulletin to a live studio audience. And when he threw to Norman May to read the sport, Norman instead introduced an interview with Jim, that Jim believed had been recorded for the archives.

Despite the seriousness of his presentation in the evening bulletin, there are funny stories. I have not been able to confirm the anecdote that appears in old newspaper profiles, that he remained inscrutable on air as a young female employee attempted to remove some items of clothing from him, lower than desk height, whilst he was reading.

He was cool under pressure, despite the inevitable technical hiccups and late breaking stories. He wasn't perfect. Memorably one night he repeatedly said during the weather that 'shattered scowers' were expected on the tablelands - before giving up and telling the audience that they knew what he meant.

He had a great sense of fun - with no pomposity. He agreed to narrating a comedy on Double J entitled "What's Grafton to you is Rangoon to me". Jim said "It was the psychedelic experiences of a surfer heading down the coast. I didn't understand it, but it was good fun."

He was a loyal ABC man - president of the ABC Staff Association towards the end of his career. Welcoming to new recruits, a mentor to rising talent, the same man in the presence of the chairman of the board as the tea-lady. He never gave the sense that it mattered in the slightest to him that he was one of the most famous and respected people in the country. And he didn't want it to matter to you either.

Retirement saw him give in other ways to his community - tireless charity service, rolling up his sleeves in active support of important causes like Rotary, Peer Support Australia, Children's Week, the Senior Citizens Committee.

And time to indulge in passions like his music, that amazing theatre organ he owned and played, old technology and new technology.

I loved hearing him talk with Simon Marnie about downloading music and the magic of Google. To an old newsman, how wonderful it must have been to be able to explore the world through the internet. He spoke with amazement at the opportunities each new technological development could bring.

He lived to a great old age. From his early home above his parent's bakery in Newtown to recognition from the Queen and Prime Ministers, a civic reception on his retirement, awards and honours - and the admiration of millions of Australians.

When the ABC turned 75 a few years ago, we opened the doors to our Ultimo headquarters - and well over 100,000 people turned up on the day. We had our studios on show, concerts for the kids, live broadcasts and appearances from a galaxy of ABC stars past and present.

But there was no-one the crowd was happier to see than James Dibble - just as they remembered him. He was, as he had always been: understated, surprised at the attention, happy to be part of the ABC. It was a delight to see him once more with his audience, at the national broadcaster.

What a career, what a life. We will never forget him: James Dibble.