Australia’s richest man, the Westfield shopping king Frank Lowy, has been ringing members of the Fairfax Board in a rage over The Age newspaper’s coverage of the Football Federation of Australia’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

I understand that Lowy, who is also chairman of the FFA, has been applying pressure at the highest levels of the company.

Yesterday the FFA issued a media release announcing that it was suing The Age for defamation over the stories in the Supreme Court of NSW. But other news reports suggested that the suit would be coming from Lowy personally.

At the time of writing the statement of claim had not been served, and according to Minter Ellison lawyer Peter Bartlett, The Age was not clear who the plaintiff would be, and whether The Age was the only paper being sued or whether the Sydney Morning Herald would be included.

Until and unless the writ was served it was not possible to make any further comment, Bartlett said.

But other sources say that Lowy had been applying pressure at the highest level, incensed by the work of The Age reporters. The announcement of the legal action came without warning yesterday afternoon, with the newspaper finding out about it via the media release.

This legal action, if it goes ahead, may be a key test of Fairfax’s editorial mettle. The stories,  by the paper’s leading investigative reporters, have alleged a trail of fees, bonuses and gifts as part of the world cup bid. They have attracted international interest.

Lowy’s Westfield Group is one of the nation’s largest advertisers, and annoying him may carry a cost. Fairfax Chairman Roger Corbett also, of course, has a retail background.

The Age expects to find out the details this afternoon with the serving of the writ.

This one will be worth watching.

Peter Fray

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