John O'Malley was born on 6 October 1922 in what was then called Robert Heights, later Voortrekkerhoogte, in Pretoria. His father was a colonel in the army and later an executive on the mines in South African and Northern Rhodesia, currently called (Zambia). O'Malley attended seven different school before completing his matric at Jeppe Boys High in Johannesburg. By this time the World War II had been broken out. O'Malley thus joined the South African Defence Force (SADF) and became a pilot.
After serving as a navigational instructor in George, he went to Italy where he flew photo-reconnaissance Mosquitoes. After the war, O'Malley joined the Argus Company's Daily News in Durban as a reporter, that's where his media career started. He speedily established himself in newspaper industry. After six years with Daily News he became chief subeditor of The Northern Newspaper, which was serving the Copper Belt in Ndola, Zambia. Five years later he became assistant editor of the Sunday Mail in Salisbury (Harare) and three years after became assistant editor at the Bulawayo Chronicle. From Bulawayo Chronicle he became editor of the short-lived Sunday Chronicle in Johannesburg, before being appointed assistant editor and then editor of Daily News. He served in these positions for 12 years.
Despite government intimidation and restrictions O'Malley ensured that his newspaper reported on the evils of apartheid and government misbehaviour. He was once summoned to the Union Buildings by the Prime Minister P.W. Botha to account for the story carried by his newspaper. The story was about senior politicians, including Botha himself, who hunted and braaied the rare black-faced impala. Botha flanked by his generals, launched personal attacks on O'Malley. He accused him of lying and said that under his editorship the Argus was “beyond redemption”. Botha further said that he had known O'Malley predecessor and that O'Malley is not fit to tie his bootlaces.
O'Malley found himself on the wrong side of the law. He was arrested in Durban after the Daily News published a report about the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO) rally that government had banned. He was kept in jail for some hours before bail could be arranged. O'Malley later filed a lawsuit against the government and won R15 000. In the mid-1990's, O'Malley refused to be associated with the blanket apology drafted by the Chief Executive Committee of Independent Newspapers John Featherstone on behalf of the Argus Company. He announced that he could not subscribe to a blanket apology that was issued on his behalf without proper consultation. “I cannot speak for those who sat in management positions during apartheid years. Or for their consciences,” O'Malley wrote. He was particularly worried by Williams's suggestion that under his editorship the Argus had distorted the truth “to fit white perception to assuage the repressive government of the day”. O'Malley said that he was one of the editors “who risked and incurred prosecution in an effort to get at the truth and was threatened with the closure of my paper”. He recalled that he had been told by the National Party's mouthpiece in the Cape, Die Burger, that under his editorship the Argus was left of the then Progressive Federal Party and more poisonous than the Cape Times. All these resulted in a public spat between O'Malley and Moegsien Williams, his former reporter, who was then editor of the Cape Times and currently the editor of The Star.
O'Malley was keen conservationist and one of the first editors to appreciate the importance of, and give prominence to environmental issues. In 1977 he became the editor of the Argus after he succeeded Wally Mackenzie. O'Malley was described as a down to earth and reserved person. He only made his visibility and presence felt in the newsroom. He would make small notes with red ballpoint and leave it secretly on reporter's typewriters. Most of these notes contained message of congratulations for a story well written.
He dismayed many people when he retired in 1982 at the age of 60. They said that his retirement came very soon. O'Malley died in Cape Town on 15 June 2005, age of 82. He is survived by his wife Jeannette, whom he married in September 1946, and three children.