The peculiar experience of being targeted by Scientology1st May 2021
One email said: “I suggest you think twice before attacking an ethical organisation. I can guarantee it will backfire and your career and personal life will suffer; not because of anything Scientology would do to you but because when you attack a pro-survival group you are in effect harming your own survival.”
It’s been an unusual experience, even though I knew that something like this would come.
Scientology is infamous for its tactic of pursuing critics, including journalists. Far worse, of course, have been allegations made by former adherents, particularly in the US church, of beatings, forced labour and forced abortions while they were in the church, and invasive surveillance and lawsuits after they leave. All of this is aggressively denied by the church.
These waves of harassment are designed to scare off critics. A 10-part Channel 7 series on Scientology by reporter Bryan Seymour was pulled by the network at the last minute last year over legal concerns. The other side of this practice is darker still – the use of private investigators to trawl through people’s lives and turning family members against each other.
The policy was known as Fair Game and was started by Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard. It led in the United States to the infiltration of the federal government, bizarre plots and criminal activities. Scientology says it was abandoned in 1968. But as documentaries such as Going Clear and books, including one by ABC journalist Steve Cannane, show similar practices have continued. Scientology vigorously rejects it has a Fair Game policy or targets critics.
In my case I can record only what I’ve seen or what’s been sent to me. Scientology has published eight pieces attacking me on one of their websites, sent aggressive legal letters from lawyers both in Australia and the United States threatening action for defamation, barraged my editor with complaint letters, published 19 abusive tweets from one of its own accounts, while a small army of anonymous sock-puppet accounts has echoed church attacks. In the past week it has published nine separate piece-to-camera videos from Scientologists attacking me and my reporting.
The legal letters, unusually, are full of derision, dropping the formal language of typical legal exchanges. A letter from one of its top US attorneys questions whether I’m an “idiot”.
Most of the material regurgitates similar key messages, and readers of The Age and The Herald, meanwhile, have also been directly targeted by Scientology advertisements on Facebook. “The Church indeed hopes the readers of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald will click on the ad and … get the true story surrounding Scientology in Australia,” the church said in response to a question from me.
On its STAND account the church says: “what precisely have Scientologists said therein that you find inaccurate, or is it the mere fact they deign to comment on your reporting that you find offensive?”
It’s worth noting that most of my 13 detailed questions sent well before the original article was published went – and remain – unanswered.
Of course, the media expects and deserves scrutiny for what we report, and we receive it often. The work of investigative reporters often offends powerful interests and leads to threats of legal action and criticism. It’s part of the job, made worthwhile when your work can lead to positive change whether it’s justice for victims of powerful interests or new laws.
As for my reporting on Scientology you can read it yourself online and make up your own mind. It showed how the not-for-profit Scientology had made $65.4 million in tax-free net profits since 2013 and had accumulated extraordinary wealth despite having fewer than 1700 adherents in Australia, down by a third in a decade.
In response to the reporting Labor and the Greens supported an investigation by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. Labor’s Andrew Leigh said he would also consider a parliamentary inquiry.
This, and the fact we are scrutinising the church’s enormous wealth, might explain why there has been such venom in the response, which even seasoned Scientology observers say has been particularly intense.
The church’s latest four-page letter sent on Friday suggested I was a “dolt” after I sent questions about a possible charities commission investigation and the legal status of one of its former charities.
“Your questions make clear you are intent on manufacturing another story out of whole cloth as you did with your recent malicious lies about the Church of Scientology Australia in which you falsely mischaracterised the Church’s publicly available financial statements, among other fabrications … Have you no sense of shame or are you too blinded by your anti-Scientology bias to see the speciousness of your ‘reporting’?”
It might be intended to deter scrutiny but it has not and will not work.