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Murray William Sayle (1926–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Murray Sayle, born in Earlwood, attended Canterbury Boys High, then rose and rose in his chosen profession of journalism through his drive, guile and intelligence. He was on Sydney's Daily Telegraph, worked on the Cairns Post and the Daily Mirror, became an ABC Radio news reporter for six years, then went abroad. He went on to climb Everest, sail the Atlantic, report from Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the Indian subcontinent, Japan and the Middle East, cover the Soviet invasion of Prague, interview master spy Kim Philby and track down Che Guevara.

He was, according to Fleet Street journalist Godfrey Hodgson, ''a complex, self-contradictory character, sardonic but warm, cynical but principled … ''

He was, another British journalist, Martin Woollacott, said, the best example of the Australian reporters of the 1950s, ''lacking both the post-imperial complexes of their British opposite numbers and the stodgy consciousness of power that afflicted some members of the American press corps''. They were ''at their best, magnificent, and Murray was perhaps the most magnificent of all''.

Murray William Sayle was born on New Year's Day, 1926, the son of a railway executive. On finishing school, he studied psychology at the University of Sydney but was drawn to journalism. He edited the student newspaper Honi Soit in 1944-45, and exposed the Ern Malley literary hoax.

Dropping out of university after two years, he joined the Packer organisation. In 1952 he followed his girlfriend to London and got a job on the Sunday tabloid The People, working as an assistant to crime reporter Duncan Webb exposing gangland activities.

In 1955 he married an Austrian countess, Maria Theresa von Stockert, but the marriage was brief. In 1956 he settled in Europe, sold encylopaedias to US service families, worked for Agence France-Presse in Paris and Switzerland and wrote a novel based on his Fleet Street experiences, A Crooked Sixpence. The book, published in 1960, became an instant hit, but was withdrawn and pulped because of litigation.

In 1964, Sayle got a job on The Sunday Times. He attracted attention by hopping on a bicycle and following a golden eagle that had escaped from London Zoo. The editor, Harold Evans, decided Sayle would be best deployed abroad. So, in 1966, Sayle went to Vietnam as a war correspondent, which won him a Journalist of the Year award. In 1967, he covered the Six Day War. He also chartered a plane and found the lone yachtsman Francis Chichester, who had gone missing off Cape Horn.

From there Sayle went to Bolivia and found evidence that Che Guevara was fomenting revolution.

In Moscow, he guessed that Kim Philby would go to the one place where it was possible to buy a copy of The Times. When Philby arrived, in a journalistically famous moment, Sayle said: ''Mr Philby?'' He got the only interview with Philby for 20 years.

Also in 1967, Sayle covered the world's first heart transplant. His level-headed accounts of the Black September clashes in the Middle East in 1970 showed up deficiencies in reports by his colleagues. That year he participated in an international expedition to climb Mount Everest, he also covered the Singlehanded Yacht Race for the BBC by sailing a yacht himself, entered by The Sunday Times. He completed it and made a film about it, On a Wide, Wide Sea. In December 1971, he covered the Indo-Pakistan War.

Woollacott, a former foreign correspondent and foreign editor of The Guardian, wrote that Sayle was ''the most engaging, charming and infuriating companion along the rocky road of foreign reporting''. Sayle could cut through, as Woollacott described it, ''the cloud of cliches, simplifications, lies and misunderstandings'' that had befuddled many, and usually dispense with the ''received view'' that soon emerged after a big story broke.

But Sayle's contrarian views sometimes rebounded on him. In January 1972 he reported on the Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland, when 13 unarmed civilians were killed. His report said that the paratroopers had opened fire without being fired on. He depicted the whole affair in terms of deliberate British policy. The Sunday Times declined to publish and an outraged Sayle resigned. He was proved right about the republicans not firing and his report of the killings became important evidence in an official inquiry, by Lord Saville of Newdigate, in 1998.

Another of Sayle's views, that North Vietnam was unlikely to triumph, was shown to be a little off. Sayle married Jenny Phillips, one of Evans's secretaries. In 1973, he became the Asian editor of Newsweek International, based in Hong Kong, and received a Magazine Writer of the Year award. In 1975, he moved with Jenny to Japan and bought a house at Aikawa, a small mountain village 100 kilometres from Tokyo, where he became a freelance journalist.

Staying in Japan nearly 30 years, he contributed what have been described as ''affectionate, if unorthodox'' reports to newspapers and magazines in the United States, Britain, Australia and Hong Kong. In 1995 he had a piece published in The New Yorker, which argued that Japan capitulated not because of the atomic bombs but because of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the fear of partition. After the fall of Okinawa, he said, Japan had put out peace feelers which the Americans chose to ignore. His book, The Myth of Hiroshima, was published in 1997.

Sayle also wrote and produced television documentaries and was a regular commentator for ABC Radio. In 2004, diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, Sayle and his family moved to Australia, where he resumed work as a regular commentator on ABC Radio, and contributor to magazines such as Quadrant. In 2007, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Sydney. In 2008, A Crooked Sixpence was republished and hailed as a classic.

Murray Sayle is survived by Jenny, two sons and a daughter. His funeral will be held today in the Rookwood South Chapel at 1.30pm.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Sayle, Murray William (1926–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

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