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Cult Moves To Silence Australian Journalist

SCOOP EDITOR'S NOTE: The following – ever so strange - tale came in this morning via email. Scoop is not in a position to verify it, nor to express an opinion on the legal merits of what it reports. For more detail follow up via the link below. Or email the Scoop editor for contact phone numbers. On the face of it John MacGregor has had a terrible time and deserves all the support he can get from his colleagues in the media business – Scoop Co-Editor Alastair Thompson.

Award-Winning Australian Journalist "Raided", Gagged, Sued By A Well-Known Religious Cult


By John Macgregor

Full details (6 pages) and photos at:
http://www.artandtext.com.au/ftp/media_access.html

Yesterday a four-month gag order on NSW journalist John Macgregor was lifted, and he can now talk about the below events.

Macgregor (winner of the 2001 George Munster investigative journalism award ( http://www.acij.uts.edu.au/awards/2001pr.html), and interviewer of PMs Hawke, Keating and Howard) was "raided" by lawyers and private detectives acting for a religious cult, in Perth on October 24. According to the cult's lawyers, the journalist had been covertly watched and filmed for several days. He was ordered to hand over his computer for a search.

Ignoring the intruders, Macgregor left Perth as planned, his car followed by a private investigator. The Ipswich-based cult - Ivory's Rock Conference Centre (IRCC) - had obtained a secret Queensland Supreme Court order authorising the search of his laptop. IRCC was looking for 11 documents leaked by a former member. Macgregor contacted his lawyer on the next business day, and appeared in court as ordered on October 30.

Macgregor fought the search order, but it was upheld at a third hearing on November 6. His laptop was searched by the cult's lawyers: personal emails were downloaded. Because he had refused, in effect, to submit to an on-the-spot search in Perth, at a fourth hearing on November 21 Macgregor was held in contempt, and fined $2000. (IRCC's QC argued strenuously for imprisonment.) Costs were awarded against him, and IRCC is now demanding $58,000.

Over the course of five closed court hearings, and more than four months, Macgregor has been restrained from speaking to anyone about the matter, creating a media blackout.

The Ivory's Rock Conference Centre, is owned by a religious cult headed by Maharaji, an Indian-born, multi-millionaire guru living in Malibu Beach, California. A year ago Macgregor's feature on the group, to which he had once belonged, ran in Good Weekend (SMH & Age) and The West Australian. (pdf version: http://freedomofmind.com/resourcecenter/groups/e/elan/) The article, and the press and TV coverage which followed, brought an angry reaction from IRCC. The prospect of Macgregor writing a further piece, exposing alleged financial wrongdoing at IRCC, apparently caused the media-sensitive Maharaji to cancel two international "events" at the conference centre last year. If forced to cancel a third event planned for April 20-23, 2004 ( http://www.amaroo.org /), it is thought IRCC may face closure.

The $30 million conference centre was built with tax-free funds raised by Elan Vital, Inc., a non-profit body run by Maharaji devotees. In 2001, Macgregor was leaked the apparently well-sourced claim that IRCC is clandestinely owned by Maharaji personally - via a company registered in a Channel Islands tax haven. Fearing exposure, numerous Elan Vital directors are thought to have resigned over the "anomaly". Macgregor has not yet published the information. It is believed IRCC's ownership is not a matter the conference centre wants to be scrutinised by media or corporate regulators.

Macgregor believes that illicit transfers of money from Elan Vital, Inc. and other non-profit bodies, are being used to create personal assets for Maharaji. The transfers are presently being investigated by the ATO, the Queensland Police Minister, Inland Revenue (UK) and the UK Charities Commission. Macgregor's October 23 court order did not permit him access to most of the documents he required for his defence.

Macgregor says, "I feel the present court action is to scare off media scrutiny in advance of Maharaji's visit on April 20-23. What has happened to me is probably intended to serve as an example to other journalists."

IRCC has spent up to $150,000 to have Macgregor covertly surveilled, followed, tape-recorded and filmed; and in what Macgregor's barrister describes as "attrition litigation": a bid to break him financially, and intimidate him into silence.

The order against John Macgregor was obtained on the basis of an October 23 affidavit by Tom Gubler, a cult-member's husband, who leaked Macgregor the 11 documents. It stated that there was a "conspiracy, headed by Macgregor", to "harm and harass" Maharaji and his devotees; and that Macgregor had provided newspapers "with stories and information based upon stolen Elan Vital documents".

The affidavit had been pre-written by IRCC's solicitors, Quinn and Scattini, and delivered pre-typed to Gubler - who says he was "terrified" and was coerced into signing it. On December 18, Gubler wrote to Scattini saying he had been "pressured" into signing the affidavit, and asking for a copy so he could "reconsider its contents". Scattini did not reply. Five days later Scattini sent the affidavit to Macgregor's employers, including Fairfax newspapers and the Australia Council, along with a letter stating - without offering any evidence - that Macgregor intended to breach a court order by publishing the 11 documents.

On February 21, Gubler came forward to swear a new affidavit, stating that his original had been coerced from him by Scattini. He described the original affidavit as coerced and false, using such terms as "ridiculous" and "a fabrication".

Because he believed the orders against him were based on a false affidavit, in the Supreme Court yesterday (March 1) before Justice Muir, Macgregor applied to have them all set aside. He also asked that the hearings - after more than four months - be opened to the media and public. His solicitor gave formal notice to federal and state Attorneys General that the case raised constitutional free speech issues.

Yesterday before the court, IRCC's QC, David Cooper, tried to have the new evidence refused as "irrelevant". Justice Muir disagreed, and a full-day hearing ensued.

Justice Muir did not accept Gubler's recanting of his previous affidavit. He did accept the evidence of a Quinn and Scattini legal secretary who had been present when Gubler signed his false affidavit, who swore Gubler had not been pressured. Under cross-examination by Macgregor's barrister, the secretary could "not recall" most of what happened that day. Macgregor's barrister had no access to those documents which, he says, showed illegality, and Macgregor's "public interest" defence (i.e. that documents showing illegality are contrary to the public interest and are not protected by a confidentiality privilege) failed.

Justice Muir awarded costs against Macgregor. Because a top-flight legal team was arrayed against him, headed by a QC, the claim is expected to be $50-100,000 on top of the existing one for $58,000. Macgregor's civil liberties lawyers acted for near-pro bono rates.

The November 6 search of Macgregor's laptop did not reveal any of the 11 documents on it. Justice Muir has ordered that it be searched again, by the cult's IT experts.

After more than four months, Macgregor's gag order was lifted yesterday. Macgregor said: "It seems unreal to me that all this is taking place in Australia. After an enforced silence, I can finally speak about what was, in effect, a secret judicial proceeding.

"In that time, it's not been possible for me to use the phone, sit in a cafe or drive my car without fear of being filmed, bugged, taped or followed. But the gag order was worse, because it brought about isolation. I couldn't share these bizarre and traumatic events with media colleagues, friends or even family, unless I wanted to risk jail.

"What happened to me suggests that when Maharaji is able to exact vengeance on his critics in secret, he takes the gloves off. It will be interesting to observe his behaviour now that the public is able to read about it."

ENDS

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