1926 - 2010 | NSW | War correspondent & foreign correspondent
Murray Sayle was a buccaneering reporter and adventurer who began by editing the Sydney University newspaper Honi Soit and became a legendary journalist in three countries. He won Britain’s Journalist of the Year Award in 1966 for his coverage from Vietnam. He tracked down Che Guevara in the Bolivian jungle and Kim Philby in Moscow. He climbed Everest and became an authority on Japan while there for 30 years. British journalist Martin Woollacott described Sayle as the best example of Australian reporters of the 1950s – lacking the post-imperial complexes of the British journalists and the power consciousness of some Americans.
One of Murray Sayle’s most celebrated maxims was that there were only two newspaper stories – “We name the guilty men” and “Arrow indicates defective part”. His quip was derided by people of importance as a licence to muckrake and sensationalise, but it contained an implicitly serious message.
As fellow Australian journalist Bruce Page, a London Sunday Times deputy editor and New Statesman editor, said: “It was really a way of calling attention to the fact that large tracts of so-called ‘serious journalism’ had nothing to say and put nothing at risk.”
Sayle’s 50 years in the “trenches of truth” involved relentless risk-taking on the treacherous slopes of Mount Everest, the storm-ravaged waters of the Atlantic, in the jungles of Bolivia, the warfields of Vietnam, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Northern Ireland, Algeria, Cyprus, and during the Soviet occupation of Prague and Black September’s plane hijackings in Jordan.
Another Sunday Times veteran, Godfrey Hodgson, the distinguished Paris, Bonn and Washington foreign correspondent, captured the formidable scope of Sayle’s reporting saying: “He was an adventurer, an autodidact and a man of many parts, an intellectual who was always willing to have an argument on almost any subject, on or off licensed premises.”
Murray William Sayle was born in Earlwood, Sydney on 1 January 1926, the son of a State Rail executive and an extrovert mother, known to neighbours as “Queen Anne”. He won a scholarship to Canterbury Boys’ High School, and then, in 1943, to Sydney University where he studied psychology (“because it was new and different”) and grew a goatee beard.
He joined the staff of the student newspaper, Honi Soit, and became its editor in 1944 at the age of 18. He was banished from final exams in 1945 for failing to attend 90 per cent of his lectures. He appears to have spent most of his time chasing scoops and libertarian-minded female students from “The Push”.
He took a cadetship at Sir Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph before travelling to Fleet Street in 1952 to seek fame and fortune. He found the first but never the second. At The People, a Sunday tabloid, he teamed up with the fabled crime reporter Duncan Webb to expose the underbelly of Soho’s prostitution rackets. He entered brothels, arranged to have sex and then employed the now famous riposte, “at this point your reporter made his excuses and left”.
In 1960 Sayle completed his wonderfully sardonic novel on post-war Fleet Street, A Crooked Sixpence, which was pulped on publication due to a vexatious libel action but republished privately in 2008 by English journalist Revel Barker, a longtime friend. Phillip Knightley, another great Sydney reporter, said it was “the best book about journalism – ever”.
Sayle graduated to Lord Thomson’s Sunday Times in 1964 where his career blossomed. He won the 1966 Reporter of the Year award for his coverage of the Vietnam War and built a reputation as the most colourful, canny and impressive foreign correspondent of the era.
I fell under his spell when I arrived at the Sunday Times in 1967 a few months after Harold Evans became editor. Barrel-chested, over six feet tall and with an impressively long nose, Sayle loved writing stories, telling stories and gathering an audience. Lewis Chester, the author and ace Insight investigator, described Murray as his “greatest inspiration” from whom he learned “competence and irreverence” and who introduced him to rogan josh and the swagman’s breakfast – “a spit and a look around”.
Sayle invited me to take up “the shining sword of reform” and delivered a quick instruction on the qualities required of a good journalist – “rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability”.
Somewhat eccentrically, he travelled to and from work in all weather on a Moulton bicycle and drove an open-air Mini Moke on overseas assignments. Whenever he returned from abroad we gathered in the office pub, the Blue Lion, opposite Thomson House, to listen to a summary of his latest adventure.
After one of his many trips to Ireland he regaled us with a history of the “troubles” dating back to Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1649. After two hours of anecdotal history, mimicry of the Reverend Ian Paisley and jokes, I asked him what things were like now. Murray played with the toothpick perennially in his mouth before replying: “There are no Christians in Ireland, only Catholics and Protestants.”
Sayle was the king of expense accounts. They were always very late, impossibly confusing and frugal by today’s standards. After a gruelling three-month tour of the Middle East, Harold Evans grounded him until he had submitted a detailed account to the pay office. For several days Murray pounded away on his typewriter and finally delivered a fistful of account sheets plus scrappy invoices. Hours later the chief accountant was beside Murray’s desk declaring that Thomson Newspapers would not pay for the camel he had bought in Amman for his journey to Damascus. Murray went to work again, came up with exactly the same grand total and resubmitted it. Attached to the front page was a note saying: “Find the camel.”
His career at the Sunday Times unravelled in 1972 when a nine foolscap page report he co-authored was spiked because it blamed the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment for the coldblooded killing of 14 civil rights marchers in Derry on 30 January, what became known as Bloody Sunday.
In the washup, Sayle resigned and went to Hong Kong and later Japan to write essays for a variety of magazines including The New Republic, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and The Spectator and to make documentaries for Britain’s Channel Four, American PBS and Canadian TV. His biggest triumphs were essays on the disappearance of Korean airliner KAL007 and “Did the Bomb End the War?” on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which filled an entire issue of the New Yorker in 1995.
Returning to Sydney in 2005, Sayle tried to reignite his newspaper career but editors were uninterested. He wrote for Quadrant and Griffith Review and was privately chuffed when he received an honorary doctorate from Sydney University, his alma mater, in 2007. A month later he was awarded an OAM.
When Lord Saville’s exhaustive report into Bloody Sunday was published in June 2010 blaming the army for “unjustified and unjustifiable” murders and Prime Minister David Cameron made an unqualified apology to the House of Commons, Sayle was desperately ill in a Stanmore nursing home. When given the news, he raised a smile and his arm to murmur: “I told you so.” He died on 19 September aged 84, survived his partner Jennifer and three children.
Alex Mitchell worked for newspapers in Australia and the UK in a career spanning 50 years. His autobiography, Come The Revolution: A Memoir, was published by New South Books in 2011.
Murray Sayle in Vietnam, c1965. Courtesy of Jenny Sayle
Murray Sayle in London in the 1950s. Courtesy of Jenny Sayle
Murray Sayle in 2005. Courtesy of Fairfax
Making Waves: The Journalism of Murray Sayle, Lewis Chester, 2016.
A Crooked Sixpence, Murray Sayle, Revel Barker Publications, 2008.
Philby: KGB Master Spy, Phillip Knightley. Andre Deutsch ,1988.
Radical Students –The Old Left at Sydney University, Alan Barcan. Melbourne University Press, 2002.