Journalists Sayle and Knightley honoured

Murray Sayle and Phillip Knightley – Legends of Journalism recognised

Two Sydney-born journalists, Murray Sayle and Phillip Knightley, were posthumously inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame on Friday, 10 November 2017.

The Melbourne Press Club, organisers of the black tie and cocktail dress event, officially recognised Sayle and Knightley as “Legends of NSW Journalism”. To some of us, they have always been in that noble category. Their recognition is very welcome if a tad on the lateish side.

I hope it reminds today’s media owners, boards of directors, editors, “sales navigators”, “events initiators” and “sponsorship originators” that journalism was once a noble craft practised by ethically-driven professionals. And cash sales of newspapers outside railway stations, at bus stops and newsagents drove profits and paid salaries. It was the journalism, stupid!

Phillip Knightley (right) interviewing Kim Philby, 1988

To celebrate the tribute to Murray Sayle (1926-2010) I was invited to write a short biography of the award-winning scribe for a commemorative book dedicated to the inductees. Sir Harry Evans, former editor of the London Sunday Times, contributed his memories of Knightley and I am reliably informed the book of “legends” will be published late next year.

Sayle, Knightley and I worked on the London Sunday Times during its golden years in the 1960s under the brilliant editorship of Evans and the paternal proprietorship of Lord (“Call me Roy”) Thomson of Fleet.

In my tribute, I included some of the priceless aphorisms and hilarious exploits for which Sayle came to be regarded as a true “legend” among journalists around the world.

Among Sayle’s most celebrated maxims was that there were only two worthwhile newspaper stories: “We name the guilty men” and “Arrow points to defective part”. Another was his aversion to what he called “dog-combing” which was the odious task of freshening up tired stories written by over-tired reporters. When he was presented with stories that required “dog-combing” Sayle’s Aussie lament would echo around the news room: “The mind boggles, the scrotum tightens and the heart sinks.”

Tracing “rat-like cunning”

My biographical tribute included his maxim on the qualities required of a good journalist – “rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability”.

To my surprise, the Melbourne Press Club questioned Sayle’s authorship of the “rat-like cunning” quotation saying: “A few sources trace that [quote] to Nicholas Tomalin. Would you like to check?”

I went to Google where an avalanche of sources did in fact ascribe the saying to the late Nick Tomalin, a Sunday Times colleague from the same era who was killed during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. Various sites even boasted Top Ten and Top 100 quotations about journalism which listed Tomalin as the author of the “rat-like cunning” remark.

It took me 24 hours to locate a copy of Tomalin’s 1969 article, “Stop the press – I want to get on” (Sunday Times Colour Magazine, 26 October 1969). The “rat-like cunning” quotation appeared in the first paragraph. However, in a subsequent paragraph Tomalin wrote: “The capacity to steal other people’s ideas and phrases – that one about rat-like cunning was invented by my colleague Murray Sayle – is also invaluable.”

Moral of the story: The uneducated hucksters who compile lists and sayings for internet sites are never to be trusted. That’s why properly trained journalists will always check with primary sources; they do not simply rely on Google, Twitter or press releases.

When the story mattered

Members of the “Australian Mafia” on the Sunday Times Insight team: l to r, Bruce Page, Phillip Knightley, Alex Mitchell and Nelson Mews

In the 1960s and early 70s, Sayle and Tomalin were two of Britain’s most outstanding investigative reporters and foreign correspondents. On the Insight team at the Sunday Times, Sayle belonged to the “Aussie Mafia” (Sayle, Knightley, Bruce Page, Tony Clifton, Nelson Mews and me) while Tomalin was from the Oxbridge intellectuals (Godfrey Hodgson, Ron Hall, Lewis Chester, John Barry, David Leitch, Magnus Linklater and Charles Raw). And yes, it was very blokey: editorial offices were in those days.

The camaraderie between the two groups ran deep. Mutual respect was paramount. In this professional culture, egos were subsumed and getting the story with deadly accuracy was all that mattered. Byline banditry was abhorred. Tomalin cheekily stole Sayle’s hilarious “ratlike cunning” quote for his feature article on the media but had the decency to acknowledge Murray’s authorship.

Sayle, who was awarded the OAM and received a doctorate from Sydney University in 2007, led an illustrious career: climbing Mount Everest (not to the top), crossing the Atlantic in a yacht singlehanded, interviewing KGB master spy Kim Philby in Moscow, tracking Che Guevara’s last days in Bolivia, covering the Vietnam war, the Soviet invasion of Prague and the British army’s occupation of Northern Ireland.

Knightley (1929-2016), also awarded a Sydney Uni gong plus an OAM, was another who enjoyed a remarkable career in the prints: Kim Philby revelations, unmasking the thalidomide tragedy, Lord Vestey’s taxation scandal and much more.

Perversely, I’m delighted that Sayle’s authorship of the satirical maxim that “rat-like cunning” was a basic requirement of journalism – a view shared by his chum Knightley – was settled once and for all at the “Legends” bash in Sydney, their home town, and where their newspaper careers first began.

George Orwell and Trotsky

Over the years many of my colleagues and friends have named novelist George Orwell as the greatest literary influence on their lives. I wonder how many of them know that he was once a passionate Trotskyist?

An original letter has come to light in England written by a senior director and editor of the publishing house, Faber & Faber, rejecting Orwell’s manuscript of his novel Animal Farm. The two-page letter is by none other than T S Eliot, winner of the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature. Thomas Stearns Eliot highly regarded as a fine poet, playwright and essayist was clearly deficient when it came to publishing or literary judgement.

In his rambling rejection note to Orwell he complained that Animal Farm elaborated a viewpoint “which I take to be generally Trotskyite”. Eliot complained that readers may think that “what was needed … was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs”. Other London publishers knocked it back too, including Gollancz and Nicholson & Watson. Jonathan Cape originally accepted the book but after a Ministry of Information civil servant warned him off, the book was dropped. Years later the civil servant was unmasked as a Russian spy.

Orwell wrote the novella to drawn attention to the descent of the 1917 Russian Revolution (of which he approved) into the monstrous era of Stalinist terror. His political evolution was guided by first-hand experiences in the Spanish Civil War as a volunteer with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, or POUM, Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista.

He witnessed Stalinist provocateurs and assassins depriving Trotskyists, anarchists and Bolshevik loyalists of food and weapons, detaining and torturing them and killing them.

He laid bare his anti-Stalinist political outlook in Homage to Catalonia which is a masterpiece of war reporting. It included a chapter on the persecution of Trotskyist fighters citing newspaper reports and letters. After giving a public lecture in the UK, Orwell was approached by a critic who asked: “Why did you put all that stuff in? You’ve turned what might have been a good book into journalism.” In his essay, Why I Write, Orwell responded: “What he said was true, but I could not have done otherwise. I happened to know, what very few people in England had been allowed to know, that innocent men were being falsely accused. If I had not been angry about that I should never have written the book.”

JFK’s assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald and the CIA

It is 54 years since the assassination of President John F Kennedy but President Donald Trump has ordered that some files remain secret for “national security” reasons.

Who are they kidding? Something that happened over half a century ago is still a danger to the security of Americans? Sounds like major arse-covering to me.

Step forward the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which has heavied Trump into withholding the remaining tranche of documents for 180 days while they are “reviewed”. All of the CIA’s efforts at censorship are directed at protecting the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was one of theirs.

Lee Harvey Oswald was born in New Orleans on 18 October 1939 and enlisted in the US Marine Corps on 24 October 1956 at Dallas, Texas. Oswald was trained as a radar operator and served at the top secret Atsugi Naval Air Station in Japan, America’s largest military base in the Pacific region. Today the CIA still runs a high-level surveillance programme at Atsagi and the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is based there.

Oswald was discharged from the US Marine Corps on 11 September 1959 but showed up in Moscow one month later in mid-October 1959 offering his services to the Soviet military. He promised to hand over US military secrets, including what he learned about the U-2 spy programme at Atsugi.

His very public defection was covered exhaustively by the American media. The ex-Marine said that he had renounced his American citizenship (untrue) and taken out Russian citizenship (true) and eventually married a 19-year-old Russian student, Marina Nikolayevna Prusakova, in April 1961 after a three-month romance.

These events coincided with the U-2 spy plane fiasco when the Soviet military shot down pilot Francis Gary Powers on 1 May 1960 and charged him with espionage.

Welcome home, Lee

The self-declared traitor Oswald returned to the US in June 1962, having requested a travel loan of $800 from the US Embassy in Moscow but received only $500. In his first interviews he expressed a desire to visit Cuba. This was at the height of CIA plans, authorised by CIA Director Allen Dulles, to assassinate President Fidel Castro and invade his island socialist republic to restore “democracy”, i.e. Italian Mafia rule.

Oswald joined the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC), an outfit jointly controlled by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the nominally Trotskyist party, and the pro-Moscow US Communist Party. Simultaneously, the CIA was trying to direct the activities of FPCC while the FBI was penetrating it: not a conspiracy but a cock-up.

After spending time with his mother at Fort Worth, Texas, Oswald moved to nearby Dallas. Records show he spent time in both cities from June 1962 and April 1963.

Trying to get work though an employment agency in Fort Worth on 26 June 1962, Oswald told his interviewer he had been in Moscow “working for the State Department”.

He became a left-wing political activist taking out subscriptions to the Communist Party paper, The Worker, and the Trotskyist weekly The Militant, and taking out a one-year subscription to the Soviet magazine, Krokodil. In January 1963 he filled in a coupon from the magazine American Rifleman in the name of “A J Hidell” to purchase a gun with telescopic sights, the weapon used to kill JFK.

Oswald with the lethal gun: picture taken by his wife

On 31 March 1963 his wife Marina took a photograph of him in their backyard holding copies of The Militant and The Worker in one hand and 6.5mm Carcano rifle that killed the 35th US president in the other.

For two months in April and June 1963 Oswald moved to New Orleans where he established a local chapter of the FPCC. He was arrested at a FPCC street demonstration in New Orleans on 9 August 1963 handing out membership forms and carrying a placard which said: “HANDS OFF CUBA! VIVA FIDEL!” He was briefly jailed and then released after pleading guilty to disturbing the peace and being fined $10.

At this point, different US spy agencies had conflicting opinions of Oswald describing him as “either an FBI agent or a Communist penetration agent”.

On 17 September 1963, Oswald obtained a 15-day tourist visa from the Mexican consulate in New Orleans to visit Mexico City. On the same day, standing in the line in front of Oswald at the consulate was William Gaudet, a longtime CIA operative. He also received a tourist visa to Mexico from the same consulate. A coincidence? I think not.

Oswald arrived by coach in the Mexican capital on 27 September 1963 and departed for Texas on October 3, six weeks before JFK’s assassination on 22 November 1963. During his brief stay he phoned the Soviet Embassy and the Cuban Embassy and was under constant CIA surveillance.

The Jack Ruby mystery

Almost 3,000 JFK papers were released in Washington DC last month by President Donald Trump. One document written by FBI director J Edgar Hoover two days after the shooting caught historians’ attention:

Lee Harvey Oswald shot by Jack Ruby

“Last night we received a call in our Dallas office from a man talking in a calm voice and saying he was a member of a committee organised to kill Oswald. We at once notified the [Dallas] chief of police and he assured us Oswald would be given sufficient protection.

“This morning we called the chief of police again, warning of the possibility of some effort against Oswald, and again he assured us adequate protection would be given. However, this was not done.”

Local Mobster Jack Ruby, born Jacob Leon Rubenstein, was allowed into Dallas police station with a loaded revolver and was stationed in the right spot to shoot Oswald at point-blank range.

Ruby was originally convicted and sentenced to death. But on appeal he was granted a new trial. A month before his appeal was due to be heard, Ruby was rushed to hospital where he died in January 1967, aged 55.

At the Warren Commission inquiry into the president’s assassination, CIA director John McCone testified: “Oswald was not an agent, employee or informant of the CIA. The agency never contacted him, interviewed him, talked to him or solicited any reports or information from him, or communicated with him indirectly or in any other manner. Oswald was never associated or connected directly or indirectly in any way whatsoever with the agency.”

From the release of some of the official records, we now know that McCone was lying. Was he lying to protect America’s “national security”, or to protect the CIA?

In my opinion we haven’t heard the end of the Kennedy assassination plot because the current story is filled with holes. And there are more than 300 files still being withheld. Why?

Following The Mad Monk

Overseas readers of The Weekly Notebook are perplexed, if not a little offended, by my repeated blackguarding of former prime minister Tony Abbott whom I insist on calling “The Mad Monk”.

Since his latest move into the public limelight in London they have become a little more tolerant.

Tony Abbott at the London think tank

The newly-established Institute for Free Trade has named Abbott as a member of its International Advisory Board, a body that one cynic described as “home to a bunch of failed leaders from around the world”.

Abbott clearly qualifies: he was ousted from the Australian prime ministership by members of his own Liberal Party after less than two years in office.

Another board member is former Tory leader Michael Howard whose right-wing Toryism was marginally less attractive to the UK electorate than Tony Blair’s right-wing Labourism.

Former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Anzar (1996-2004) is another out-and-out reactionary on the board of the think tank. Anzar carries the torch for Franco’s clerical fascism. When 191 civilians were killed and 2,000 injured in a train bombing in Madrid three days before the 2004 Spanish election, Anzar blamed Basque separatists in the country’s north. His right-wing party lost the election because voters did not believe him and they were sick of its croney capitalism. Anzar himself did not contest the election after being promised the presidency (which he was duly given).

A commission of inquiry found that Al Qaeda was responsible and North African terrorists were linked to the outrage. Anzar has formally left Spanish politics but remains a behind-the-scenes player in the fascist-style crackdown on Catalonians.

Anzar’s Australian connection goes beyond sharing a looney board position with London-born Abbott. The failed Spanish politician is also a member of the board of directors of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Class war story of the week

The world’s billionaires are worth a combined $US6 trillion and 39% of it is owned by individuals over the age of 70, according to a new wealth report. Led by China, the number of Asian billionaires surpassed the US for the first time.


  1. Inspiring appraisal of Murray Sayle and Philip Knightley. Great – nostalgic – reflections on that inimitable Sunday Times Insight team. I’m still confused about the Kennedy paraphernalia. Couple of strong drinks with Alex might help.

  2. Alex, from Stephen Fay
    Good piece about PK and Murray. But you need to separate them. Phil was never central to Insight, although he did contribute massively to the Philby story. He preferred to work alone or with one colleague (often me I’m happy to remember). The influence of the Oz mob is more complex than is generally recalled. Bruce absorbed some bad bruises until he succumbed to the killer blow. The Australian mafia infected a state of mind which was great when it demanded more, harder work, and less effective when – not unlike Rupert Murdoch – it could be contemptuous of the people who made up the audience.

  3. Hi Alex
    Thanks for the piece on Philip Knightley and Murray Sayle. I met them both a few times at the regular Dick Hall lunches and as a youngish woman then, was suitably overawed. You have triggered a memory; after one lunch, Murray invited me to go with him to dinner at the home of Harry Seidler. Good conversation was capped when Harry took me to his study and showed me the diaries he wrote as a fourteen year old in a Nazi camp. I don’t remember Murray’s knowledge, skill and generosity often enough. Thanks for the nudge.

  4. It is better late that never when on two late great journalists Murray Sayle and Phillip Knightley are awarded a little late. That is fate.

  5. I am at present about a third the way through your thrilling book: Come the Revolution – and about which I will later make some comments (positive – obviously). Looking up your blogsite – I found this recent tribute to your old journalistic mates. I lived many years in Japan and recall my delight in coming across the stories of Murray SAYLE from his mountain village/observations of Japan – but moved by his illuminations on the humanity of the people in that place – one memorable story dealing with what happened when the SAYLE Family home was destroyed by fire.

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