There’s Something
About Les

On Tuesday morning, 16 June 2015, I woke up in São Paulo, Brazil, to be greeted by an avalanche of Facebook messages from friends telling me to read Les Murray’s column, “The Truth About FIFA, The Scandal, And Me” on The World Game, an Australian website I wrote for between 2007 and 2011.

“Your thoughts on this would be interesting to say the least, Fink.”

“Was that the equivalent of Murray dropping to the ground, clutching his shin and writhing in agony?”

“It’s like a kid who’s being caught eating chocolate from a cookie jar, and denying it, while his face is smeared with it!”

In his column, Murray responds to a recent piece by Martin McKenzie-Murray in The Saturday Paper about Murray, Peter Hargitay and Frank Lowy; specifically the role Murray played in the doomed Australian bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Frank Lowy

The bid was a quixotic, foolish exercise that cost Australian taxpayers nearly $50 million for one vote and which has now led to an Australian Federal Police investigation.

Murray opens his column with a tone of surprise: “[FIFA’s crisis] is now a major topic of reporting and discussion in media organisations just about everywhere in the world as new revelations of sleaze emerge every day. Yet in Australia it triggers introspection and invokes our remarkable capacity to beat up on each other. It seems every time a stink bomb goes off in Zurich it becomes an opportunity for the magnifying glass to be turned on one or more of our own and to ask who among us is part of football’s vast network of corruption.”

The same corruption at FIFA was a major talking point in 2011 when Sepp Blatter was last elected FIFA president. I was asking plenty of hard questions at SBS in my column, Half-Time Orange, as were other writers, such as Davidde Corran and Matthew Hall. But not everything I wrote about FIFA got published.

If all the facts about the World Cup bid and the people behind it had
been known I don’t think it would have had the support it ultimately got from the Australian public.

SBS is a taxpayer-funded TV network. Both the Australian World Cup bid and SBS received public money. But instead of having a voice independent of Football Federation Australia, SBS, in my opinion, was protecting the bid from legitimate critical scrutiny by its own writers.

If all the facts about the bid and the people behind it had been known I don’t think it would have had the support it ultimately got from the Australian public.

Murray casts The Saturday Paper story as “a naked attempt at a hatchet job and the blackening of my character” and finishes up by saying, “Martin McKenzie-Murray has joined the small but predictable Aussie group who love to publicly molest any individual who may have had anything to do with FIFA or even the Australian World Cup bid.”

The masthead of The Saturday Paper

“Publicly molest” seems a tad grand. I don’t know McKenzie-Murray outside of the questions he asked me for his front-page story, but in his role as chief correspondent for The Saturday Paper I would suggest he is merely carrying out the duties of a responsible journalist writing a story that is very much in the public interest.

Murray came out last month and said Blatter must go. Who publicly backed Blatter back in 2011? Murray, the same man who now appears to revel in his position as a sort of self-styled, morally unimpeachable Yoda of football.

Marin McKenzie-Murray of The Saturday Paper

Murray said this in June 2011: “The people who are critical of the FFA voting for Sepp Blatter [for FIFA president] in this case ought to get a reality check. FFA chairman Frank Lowy has been put in charge of Australian football, not in order to take the high ground but to look after the interests of Australian football, whatever they are in his opinion. That’s what they’re there for and that’s what people need to understand.”

Furthermore, in December that same year Murray talked at a conference of Chartered Secretaries Australia on sports governance. Bonita Mersiades, the former head of corporate affairs at FFA and another speaker at the event, made notes. Her presentation can be read here.

According to Mersiades, Murray made the argument that his critics didn’t understand he was attempting to reform FIFA from within and he didn’t see the need to resign his position on the ethics committee. He maintained Blatter would steer football through troubled waters and implement reform from within the organisation.

Mersiades noted that Murray said “Blatter has to work within the system”, “he owes nobody anything anymore” and he would get the job done.

So in public and private circles we were lectured to by Murray in 2011 for not understanding the geopolitical intricacies of the issue and now in 2015 he’s done a complete backflip: “I don’t think FIFA can continue and try to regain credibility with Blatter still at the helm.”

What’s it going to be, Les?

Bonita Mersiades

In his World Game column Murray is indignant: “The body text of the [Saturday Paper] piece contains no specific allegation of wrongdoing on my part, only innuendo and imputations of guilt by association. It’s cheap, tabloid journalism at its lowest.”

Did I read the same story?

Murray recommended to Lowy a man who worked for Union Carbide (yes, that’s the Union Carbide of the Bhopal disaster) and the late Marc Rich (who was on FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list) to run our supposedly clean, taxpayer-funded World Cup bid. At the very least that should have been addressed in his column.

How many stories appeared on The World Game during the World Cup bid about Hargitay’s “colourful” past? Can someone show me the stories? Instead, what we got on The World Game was this.

Sepp Blatter with Peter Hargitay

As a man of ethics, how did Murray feel about recommending someone with that background? Did he have any misgivings? On these questions Murray says nothing. All we got out of Murray in The Saturday Paper was: “In my opinion [Hargitay] seemed a wise appointment given his network of acquaintances within FIFA’s top brass.”

Wise? It proved to be a disaster. Australia’s bid was an international laughing stock. Who can ever forget the film that was made for the bid featuring an animated kangaroo and Paul Hogan on a motorbike? The bid was one of the most atrociously conceived and poorly executed in the history of Australian sport.

Murray also doesn’t tackle the other allegation made by The Saturday Paper: “If the junction of conflicting interests that had Hargitay in the employ of both the FFA and Qatar, a rival nation in the bid to host the World Cup finals, wasn’t enough, there is this: the doyen, Les Murray, was then sitting on FIFA’s ethics committee, the same committee that would later expel Warner and bin Hammam for corruption. He was also, of course, a senior broadcaster at SBS.”

Again, did Murray and I read the same story? In it, McKenzie-Murray even uses the words “these conflicts”, spelling it out plainly.

Two incompatible roles — FIFA ethics committee member and editorial supervisor at SBS Sport. In my opinion and evidently that of The Saturday Paper, a “conflict”.

In my view Murray should not have played any part — official, unofficial or otherwise — in Australia’s World Cup bid when he was on the ethics committee. He could have simply resolved the issue of a perceived “conflict” at the time by resigning one of his posts.

Murray’s only comment on “these conflicts” was in the original McKenzie-Murray piece: “I never muted stories critical of FIFA, ever. Or of the FFA for that matter. I was an open supporter of the bid and never denied it. I was in the room when Bonita Mersiades addressed a group of journalists and asked them to be cheerleaders for the bid. I was a cheerleader. But I never instructed or compelled anyone on what opinions to express about the bid. I did suggest a column topic to one columnist once but he chose not to take my suggestion and I was fine with that. The columnist in question [Fink] later had his contract terminated and he’s blamed me and attempted to slander me ever since. Yet I had nothing to do with his termination. I didn’t even recommend it.”

Readers can believe what they like. The axe came down on me from the head of sport, Ken Shipp, and the news was relayed to me by World Game executive producer Toby Forage.

In June 2011, in the lead-up to the 61st FIFA Congress, I had two World Game columns pulled on Sepp Blatter alone: “Australia’s risky gambit in Asia” and “FIFA must brace for its Tahrir Square”.

Now it’s important for anyone reading this to remember Murray was the editorial supervisor of SBS Sport and Ken Shipp was head of sport. The editorial buck stopped with them. Not the editors who worked underneath them.

There were numerous examples of my written content being manipulated, softened, censored or pulled altogether at The World Game.

In June 2011, in the lead-up to the 61st FIFA Congress, I had two World Game columns pulled on Sepp Blatter alone: “Australia’s risky gambit in Asia” and “FIFA must brace for its Tahrir Square”.

Among other bits of advice I was offered by World Game editorial staff, I was informed The World Game “prefers to cover this topic as news rather than opinion”, “we advise you to consider other topics to blog about or run the risk of having them knocked back” and “there are plenty of other things going on, not least the three World Cups involving Australia national teams and the A-League draw. Please feel free to file another piece if you like and you’re welcome to share your thoughts on Sepp Blatter and what he should do to stamp out corruption inside FIFA after the election.”

The keyword there is after.

I was told by an editor that Murray had provided a “comprehensive wrap” of the events in Zurich and that his was the only opinion on the subject that would be published on the site.

Les Murray

But my run-ins with the spectre of Murray at SBS went much further back.

The first time I ran into difficulty was when Blatter announced in June 2008 that he thought the 2018 event should go to Europe. I wrote a column comparing the Australian bid with Don Quixote tilting at windmills (“The windmill of 2018”). I got a phone call from Murray telling me the 2018 bid (the Australian bid was then wholly focused on 2018) was winnable and everyone who worked for SBS had a part to play.

He then sent me an email that was a copy of a circular he had sent to all staff. It said: “It is not a good look if we — SBS — the most powerful voice in football, appear to talk down the bid or declare it stillborn. Given that the bid has great support in Australia, including enthusiastic support by all governments, my preferred editorial policy would be to support it.”

I was left in no doubt that the only way the “Windmill” column was ever going to get published (and I was going to get paid for it) was if I rewrote it. So I told Murray I was “happy to rework the blog” and basically softened it. But the column never appeared on the home page of the website, as all my columns for The World Game did.

When I asked for an explanation from SBS management, I was told by one of the editors: “Les spoke to Ken [Shipp, the head of sport] about it” and “after that I was directed to bury it by Les, although I am not sure who made the final call but I assume it was Ken.”

In September 2011, when interviewed on Four Corners by reporter Quentin McDermott, Murray denied there was a “preferred editorial policy”. He was asked directly by McDermott if “privately” there was a “preferred editorial policy” at SBS “to support the bid”. His reply staggered me: “We had never declared any kind of editorial policy to support the bid.”

Readers can click on the video “Les Murray (Four Corners)” at this link and go to 17:20. Murray says it all on tape.

In 2011 after I was axed by SBS, ABC-TV’s 7.30 ran a story that proved the existence of the 2008 email.

The other significant story from that early period with SBS was “Achilles heel of our World Cup bid exposed”, written on 28 May 2010. It was about how the football business website World Football Insider had published a Bid Power Index, a table rating the World Cup bids. Australia had plummeted from second-favouritism (out of nine) to seventh in the five months since Mersiades was dumped by FFA.

The World Game refused to publish it. I made a formal complaint to World Game executive producer Toby Forage and head of sport Shipp about it. The only justification that was given to me (by Forage) for pulling it was “essentially [Shipp has] told me we have to act in the best interests of SBS, which he felt in this case we did”.

Last month in Sharri Markson’s column in The Australian, Murray said of the incident: “[Fink] was an opinion columnist and he wrote the [“Achilles”] piece like it was a news item. He discovered that some obscure website rated Australia’s chances very low and he wrote it up as a major blow to Australia’s chances and I said to him, this is a news story and as a news story it doesn’t stand up, so write something else.”

Um, no. World Football Insider was a highly influential website during the World Cup bid. It was a very bad piece of news.

In the same column in The Australian, we were informed by Markson: “Murray said this was the only column he had spiked and said claims of censorship or editorial pressure were a ‘complete fabrication’.”

On 6 March 2010 I was sent an email by Murray in regards a story by Matthew Hall (a former SBS Sport columnist and the author of The Away Game, a book I edited) about the USA World Cup bid and how Sunil Gulati, the president of the US Soccer Federation, was talking it up as being superior to the Australian bid.

Sunil Gulati

Murray wrote: “Just an idea but you may want to respond to this Gulati clown in a blog. That’s if you hold that view of course. I can’t because of my role on the FIFA ethics committee. I can wise you up on the arguments why his claims don’t hold much water, starting with the fact that they are all based on money.”

Murray later wrote in one of his columns: “As a member of the committee since 2006, let me vouch that all of its members are utterly honourable and decent men and women who are outside FIFA’s political machinery and who have no agendas other than to ensure that FIFA’s code of ethics are not breached.”

Note those words: have no agendas.

Then, on 27 September 2010, in a blog about Paraguayan football chief Nicolas Léoz (one of those targeted in the recent sting in Zurich), World Game editors removed a reference to bribes Léoz had received from ISL, a Swiss company that had bribed several FIFA officials. I was informed by an editor that it wasn’t relevant to discussion of Léoz.

Nicolas Léoz

The explanation: “It was decided by the editorial team that the documenting of the ISL stuff wasn’t relevant to the rest of the yarn.”

On 18 October 2010, I wrote another column called “FIFA must empower the fans” about corruption allegations facing two FIFA executive committee members, vice-president Reynald Temarii of Tahiti and Amos Adamu of Nigeria, and how it was time for FIFA to consider having a fans’ or supporters’ committee.

I was told by a World Game editor: “I’ve run this past Ken [Shipp] and we’re not comfortable running it, I’m afraid. Like it or not — and I’m sure it’s the latter — SBS is a partner of FIFA, and thus it’s very difficult for us to cover these subjects in the way you have here. Journalistically, ethically, however you want to describe it, I know it’s difficult to swallow, but to be fair, we’ve discussed this in the past so I’d be surprised if you weren’t expecting this reaction. It’s really in your interest to steer clear of FIFA-bashing when writing for us. With this in mind, you’ll need to file on another subject today if you want something to go up. And there will be no point arguing a case to publish this as, without Ken’s buy-in, it’s not going to get a run on TWG.”

That same month I was attacked by SBS football analyst Francis Awaritefe for writing a column that suggested FIFA was better off taking the World Cup to the United States over Australia. Francis and I have had coffee together a number of times before and since that time. It was football banter. Football is a game of opinions.

Francis Awaritefe

So I wrote a response rebutting Awaritefe but was told by management it wouldn’t be published. I was informed I could only make a comment on Awaritefe’s blog, which was obviously totally inadequate. I wasn’t given a proper right of reply. I then made a complaint to management and was informed they would think about it so long as I rewrote the column. I took the precaution of putting it on my personal Facebook page so my friends would know I had written a column about Awaritefe and to expect it on The World Game site. When SBS found out I’d put it on Facebook they came back and said they would no longer publish any version of the column.

So I rewrote the column and submitted it to Tribal Football, a competing website, and they published it without any issue whatsoever.

It was then that I got a call from someone inside SBS saying Murray had seen it and was “pretty upset” because of “our refusal to publish what you’d written for TWG… the time has come for you to tread very carefully… when punters see you write other stuff that directly challenges out position with FIFA, the FFA and the World Cup bid in particular, it in turn reflects on us.”

I was then given advice in a follow-up phone call that if I wanted to keep writing for SBS I should cease writing anything about the World Cup bid until the hosting-rights decision on December 2 in Zurich.

Given this was the biggest story in football, the directive was ridiculous as well as offensive. I was so desperate to show readers that I was actually aware the World Cup bid was going on I wrote a blog faintly extolling the Australian bid the day before the vote. I believed it was the only way I could get something on the World Cup bid published.

Johnny Warren and Les Murray, circa 1994

In his latest World Game column, Murray says journalism is ingrained within him.

Murray: “I have not been a muckraker or a career FIFA basher, for sure. There are enough of those without me. My training in journalism, ingrained within me, compels me to stick to facts.”

Murray had to apologise to the Socceroos’ Lucas Neill in 2011 when he got something awfully wrong in his book, The World Game: The Story of How Football Went Global. This was despite earlier telling The Australian: “I absolutely stand by what I’ve written. Why shouldn’t I?… I was proven right, having had the allegations backed up by a number of sources.”

Murray’s halo is still relatively intact because, as I see it, for years he’s basked in the telegenic afterglow of a true champion of the game — the late Johnny Warren

By that stage — mid 2011 — SBS hadn’t renewed my contract, even though I was their most read football columnist and got more traffic than anyone on The World Game. You can’t find any of my columns on the SBS site any more.

I was advised by Toby Forage: “[Ken Shipp isn’t] going to change his mind on Half-Time Orange having had its day. However, he doesn’t want to close the door on re-hiring you under a different guise, if that’s an option you’re happy to think about. His words: ‘I don’t want to see the guy starve.’”

Murray’s halo is still relatively intact because, as I see it, for years he’s basked in the telegenic afterglow of a true champion of the game— the late Johnny Warren — and doesn’t every Australian football fan love to get their picture with a TV star? For a time, I was one of them and looked up to Murray. I wrote a book about Australian football, 15 Days in June, and went out of my way to raise the profile of former national-team players, such as the 1965 team that played in our first World Cup qualifying campaign, a group of good and decent men totally ignored by FFA.

Concludes Murray in his column: “Why did I support the Australian World Cup bid? Because the urge to grow football is embedded in my DNA. And I felt Australia hosting a football World Cup would do wonders to grow the game in my country, as I still do. This passion is not shared by everyone in the football media commentariat, so what drives me is not always understood.”

Like he’s the only person who’s ever wanted and worked for what’s best for the game in Australia. There are plenty of others.

Jesse Fink is the author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC and two other books, Laid Bare and 15 Days in June. He is working on a new book for Penguin Random House Australia. Between 2006 and 2012 he wrote football columns for The World Game, Fox Sports Asia, The Roar, Fox Sports Australia and many other outlets in Australia and Asia.