x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Murray Sayle: Reporter had knack for exclusives and hard-to-find news sources

An adventurer and autodidact who secured a number of memorable scoops during his long career, he had an uncanny ability to turn up missing persons.

Murray Sayle was the consummate journalist. An adventurer and autodidact who secured a number of memorable scoops during his long career, he had an uncanny ability to turn up missing persons. Not only did he follow a trail of clues (including a prescription for the revolutionary's asthma) to track down Che Guevara in the Bolivian jungle in 1967 and break the news that Che had left Cuba to foment revolution in South America, that same year he lay in wait near Moscow's foreign post office hoping to apprehend the communist spy Kim Philby reasoning that, at some point, Philby would come by to collect his cheques from London or peruse the cricket scores in The Times. When the yachtsman Francis Chichester went missing while circumnavigating the globe, it was Sayle who located him at Cape Horn. He climbed Everest, sailed the Atlantic single-handedly and proved himself as comfortable in rural Japan as he had been on Fleet Street when he and his family moved there in 1975. He told his wife Jenny that it would be for only six months.

Months became years, and the family stayed in a small rural Japanese village for nearly 30 years. Sayle worked as a freelancer, contributing to publications from the Spectator to the New York Review of Books, translating often humorously the cultural idiosyncrasies of his hosts for a Western audience, but always demonstrating great affection for his subjects. His account of the dropping of the atom bomb at Hiroshima, in which he contested the significance of the event as the catalyst for Japan's surrender, occupied an entire issue of the New Yorker magazine in July 1995. Born in Sydney, Sayle studied psychology at university but left after two years and became a journalist. He was an intern at the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and later wrote a column for the Sydney Daily Mirror. Moving to Europe, he worked in Paris for Agence France-Presse and sold encyclopedias in Germany, before joining the Sunday Times in 1964. Under Harold Evans, the newspaper was undergoing a metamorphosis from a stolid establishment organ into a serious, investigative paper.

Sayle proved to be an excellent war reporter. Covering Vietnam and the India-Pakistan war of 1971, he recalled an occasion when he had asked a British general why Australians made "such good war correspondents". Came the reply: "Because, dear boy, they're so very good at camping!" The few remaining copies of his documentary novel of Fleet Street life, The Crooked Sixpence, became a cult object decades after the majority of the print run was pulped following the threat of libel action by a friend of the author's, a penniless aristocrat, who saw the book as a means to make himself some ready cash. Sayle's guiding journalistic principle was that "there are only two stories in newspapers: 'We name the guilty man' and 'Arrow points to defective part'". It was a simple model that he followed with great success. He is survived by his wife Jenny, two sons and a daughter. Born January 1, 1926. Died September 18, 2010.