Four years ago I wrote a story in The Sunday Age about a brave young woman who had been trapped in a small, northern-NSW new-age cult for 12 years.
She'd lost that portion of her life, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars, both buying useless courses and in direct payments to the cult leader, Natasha Lakaev.
She'd been hit, dominated, humiliated, worked without pay for up to 22 hours a day and, when I spoke to her, was still frightened that the end of the world was nigh. She'd had her tubes tied because she believed what Lakaev had told her: that she was a "human f--k up" who could not properly look after her three children. She grieved over the daughter she'd never have.
But, unlike most victims of cults, this young woman - I will not name her because she has been through enough already - was courageous enough to want to tell all this to the world. She wanted to warn others about Lakaev, and to say out loud that she was no longer afraid of her.
I had written already about the Exclusive Brethren so had some knowledge of the subject, and wanted to help her do this. I also wanted to use her case to explain to my readers how cults recruit the young, the clever, the searching, and then proceed to grind them down.
In the research for the story, I found out that Lakaev was working as a registered psychologist for a Queensland government health centre on the Gold Coast, looking after patients she herself had described as vulnerable. I wrote about that, too.
I also found out she was litigious and had sued former cult members for allegedly writing about her on internet forums after she had legally forced a website to reveal the identities of its users. She had also sued A Current Affair for an earlier story. The result was that many adverse stories about her were not available.
She sent a warning letter to Google trying to have adverse mentions of her removed. She was adept, in other words, at cleansing her online image.
You cannot read my stories online any more either. Fairfax Media has removed them as part of a legal settlement with Lakaev reached in the early hours of Wednesday morning that ends the four-year defamation case she launched against Fairfax as well as News Limited - which wrote wrote a follow-up story to mine - me personally and two of the people quoted in the stories.
After four years of dragging this case through the courts, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses, Lakaev had her day in court this week. It was to argue to the Queensland Supreme Court for yet another delay, after she had failed properly to prepare for a four-week jury trial. It turns out that she'd made little real effort to do anything at all to prepare.
Her tactics, perhaps, were simply to delay so long, piling the emotional pressure on people she had already systematically victimised once, to wring a financial settlement out of Fairfax and the other defendants.
It did not work. In court, applying for the adjournment. The judge said that: "The plaintiff prevaricated, talked in circumlocutions, and otherwise tried to avoid anything that might do otherwise than bolster a case."
And again: "I found her evidence deliberately prevaricating and at times demonstrably untrue during the course of this adjournment application."
The judge refused the adjournment application and told Lakaev to be ready to conduct the trial by herself, starting next week. Confronted with the reality of running the case, Lakaev began negotiating to settle.
Settlement was reached on the basis that nothing of what my stories said, nor what my brave subject was willing and able to prove in court, was retracted.
Fairfax agreed to take down our articles to get the settlement done, but nothing says we cannot write another account of events. No money changed hands.
Judgment was entered against Lakaev and for the defendants. According to the law, Fairfax, the brave young woman and her former husband, our other co-defendants and I, won the case.
What do we make of all this?
Defamation law, in the hands of a highly determined and litigious individual, is a powerful deterrent to public-interest journalism. Fairfax and News Limited stood ready to prove every one of the things we wrote about Lakaev, but it took four expensive years even to get to the door of the court. Then, but for the good sense of the judge it might have taken 18 months more. We will receive nothing back from the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars spent preparing our case. It is unlikely Lakaev could have met our costs, she was hoping she was the one who'd get the payout. Lesser organisations or individuals, once their research revealed how litigious she is, may have pulled back from publishing a story that was clearly in the public interest.
When we talk about the demise of well-funded commercial media, this is one of the potential casualties.
And, finally, to the American ballet school that Lakaev is suing: hang tough. She spends a lot of time shaping up to people through the courts, but under cross-examination she's not much of a witness.
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