Career as a journalist and broadcaster
Colvin graduated from Oxford University with a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in English literature and arrived in Australia in 1974. He began employment in January 1975 at the ABC's rock music station Double Jay (2JJ, now known as Triple J) as one of the foundation staff, initially working as a cadet journalist. While at 2JJ, he presented news, conducted interviews, and produced current affairs and documentary specials until 1978. With strong foreign language skills in French, Italian and Spanish, he was posted to the Canberra bureau and was appointed a television news producer. A year later he was one of the first reporters on Nationwide, along with Jenny Brockie, Paul Murphy, and Andrew Olle.
In 1980, at the age of 28, Colvin was appointed foreign correspondent in London, and travelled to cover major stories, including the American hostage crisis in Tehran and the rise of Solidarity in Poland. During his time covering the Middle East, Colvin was deeply affected by the death of his interpreter, Bahram Dehqani-Tafti, a secular Iranian murdered and dumped outside a Tehran prison. Colvin believed that the mullahs had a dispute with Dehqani-Tafti's father, the Anglican bishop of Iran in exile in London.
Colvin returned to Australia in 1983 and was initially a reporter on both AM and PM, before agitating for the establishment of a midday news and current-affairs radio program. Colvin became the founding presenter of The World Today on ABC radio. The following year, Colvin went to Brussels as Europe correspondent, and covered the events across the continent as the Cold War began to thaw and the Gorbachev era started the process that would lead to the lifting of the Iron Curtain.
Between 1988 and 1992, Colvin was a reporter for Four Corners, making programs focused on, inter alia, the French massacre of Kanaks in New Caledonia, the extinction of Australia's fauna and the Cambodian peace process. His feature on the Ethiopian famine won a Gold Medal at the New York Film Festival and was runner-up for an International Emmy Award. In 1992, Colvin accepted another London posting, this time for television, mainly reporting for Foreign Correspondent, the 7.30 Report and Lateline. His language skills and long European experience paid off in stories such as his series on the relationship between Italian organised crime and government, which culminated in the trial of former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti.
In 1994, Colvin was deployed by the 7.30 Report to Africa to cover the unfolding tragedy in Rwanda. Travelling via Zaire, he witnessed an extensive human tragedy, in which about a million refugees were living in camps with poor sanitation and hygiene, with cholera and dysentery commonplace. Colvin was diagnosed with granulomatosis with polyangiitis, a rare inflammation of blood vessels, which nearly killed him. After several months in hospital, during his convalescence he became aware of a side effect of the treatment—his hip joints collapsed and both hips had to be replaced. He spent the next 18 months in Europe.
In 1997, Colvin returned to Sydney and started in his role as presenter for ABC Radio's PM.
On 22 March 2013, Colvin received a kidney transplant from a living donor. Colvin, and the hospital and staff, allowed the process to be recorded for television.
In a televised interview on 1 May 2013, the living donor of Colvin's transplanted kidney was revealed to be Mary-Ellen Field, whom Colvin had met while reporting on victims of the News of the World/News International phone hacking scandal. Field had received unwanted notoriety after details of her working relationship with Elle Macpherson had been revealed through reporting of messages from Field's hacked phone, causing Macpherson to sack Field. It was revealed that Colvin and Field had established a correspondence after the interview, finally meeting in 2011; that Field had decided to become a donor before revealing this to her husband; that the pair had considered naming the kidney "Rupert" (after Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive officer of News Corporation, the parent company of News International that owned News of the World); and, that Colvin had declared a conflict of interest to his employer and ceased reporting on Field.
During 2010, Colvin worked to raise the profile of organ donation through interviews with a number of media agencies including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Drum, The 7.30 Report, and Life Matters.
The story of Colvin's kidney donation and the circumstances surrounding it was the subject of a stage play titled Mark Colvin's Kidney by playwright Tommy Murphy. The play was produced by the Sydney theatre company Belvoir with David Berthold as director, and a cast including actor John Howard as Colvin and Sarah Peirse as Mary-Ellen Field.
In 2016 Colvin released his autobiography, Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy's Son.