Whistle blows on Murray, but is it halftime or fulltime?
Les Murray was doing what Les Murray does better than anyone last weekend.
On SBS’s Women’s World Cup Show, he was pronouncing the unpronounceable, and enthusing over the prospects of one of Australia’s national teams – in this case, our women’s team, the Matildas.
In the ad breaks, there he was again, promoting his latest book. That book has gotten him into all sorts of trouble lately, due to alleged inaccuracies surrounding Murray’s claim that Socceroos skipper Lucas Neill led a players’ revolt against coach Pim Verbeek at the 2010 World Cup.
Despite Murray’s MacAvaneyesque enthusiasm for all things soccer, there are some who find him dry, humourless and a little hard to digest. But that’s just a style thing. After last night’s 7.30 Report, many will today be questioning the substance of the man too.
As Leigh Sales said in her intro: “Journalists and columnists allege they’ve been under pressure to write pieces supporting Australia’s World Cup bids. They say some of the pressure has been coming from veteran broadcaster Les Murray, the editorial supervisor at SBS Sport and a member of FIFA’s Ethics Committee.”
There are several disgruntled figures at play here, but chief among them is football writer and blogger Jesse Fink, who was employed by SBS’s website The World Game for four years, before his contract was terminated last week.
I should disclose at this point that I have known Jesse for 10 years. He can be an abrasive person with a knack for getting into verbal fights, but he is a well-credentialled journalist who was a finalist in the 2003 Walkley Awards with an investigative piece on the people who sell cricket memorabilia.
Here’s a nice irony. Les Murray was one of the three judges who chose Fink as a finalist back in 2003. But let’s return to the present day.
Last night on 7.30, Fink claimed things started to change for him at SBS when he began writing pieces that were critical of the Australian World Cup bid and the Australian World Cup bid strategy.
Last night’s report revolved around an email sent by Les Murray to some SBS staff in 2008. In the email, Murray took issue with some of the negative comments which had been made about the World Cup bid. He wrote:
“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… my preferred editorial policy would be to support it…”
Fink says he was appalled by this, even though Murray went on to say in the email that “this is not to say we shouldn’t broadcast the facts or that we shouldn’t give it [the bid] balanced debate”.
Murray wouldn’t be interviewed for the show and strongly denies any impropriety, but SBS issued the following statement.
“SBS refutes the suggestion that Les Murray instructed SBS staff to have no regard for impartiality in relation to the Australian bid to host the World Cup, nor did he instruct staff to report negatively on other nation’s bids.”
Then 7.30 revealed another email, in which Murray suggested Fink write a piece on the US bid. He said he couldn’t do it himself as a member of FIFA’s Ethics Committee, but encouraged Fink to respond to “this Gulati clown” in a blog.
Gulati was the then president of the US soccer federation. Needless to say, Fink never wrote the column.
The show continued, with more blank denials from SBS. “Mr Fink has expressed a range of views on matters relating to FIFA, the FFA and football generally, none of which were curtailed at the direction of Les Murray,” they said.
But the bottom line is this: Jesse Fink believes he had something less than pure editorial freedom.
7.30 reports that Murray sent a reminder email saying “we are not permitted to defame FIFA officials”. That email was in relation to Mohammed Bin Hammam, the would-be FIFA boss who quit May’s presidential race hours before fronting an inquiry into corruption.
But the moment that really riled Fink was the day he had a column sent to Football Federation Australia (FFA) for “fact checking”. SBS says it was indeed for fact checking, not “approval”. Those kind of semantics just make Jesse Fink laugh.
A long, fresh rant appeared on Fink’s website overnight entitled “Why I Blew the Whistle”. It’s nearly 1,500 words but the salient two paragraphs are these:
SBS Sport, as a news service not a PR arm for the FFA or FIFA, should have been fighting for truth and accountability. It spends our money, after all.
Taxpayers spent $45.6 million on the World Cup bid and in my view SBS Sport protected that waste of money from critical examination.
Whether Fink is right or wrong about that – and lawyers may have the last say – it’s safe to assume that life will not be the same for Les Murray after this. Not for a while anyway.
The most recognisable face in Australian soccer will now be seen by some as a man whose passion led him to be heavy-handed. A man who overstepped certain boundaries in the name of promoting the game he loves.
No one doubts that Murray has Australian soccer’s best interests at heart. The game is his life, after all.
But his friendship and professional support for colourful lobbyist Peter Hargitay - who was on Australia’s World Cup bid – has rung alarm bells for some.
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