Last week scores of journalists received an email with the enticing subject line: "Cult moves to silence journalist". The bulk mail-out was done by freelance reporter John Macgregor, who in 2001 won the George Munster Award for Independent Journalism, to draw attention to his legal battle with Ivory's Rock Conference Centre Pty Ltd in Ipswich in south-east Queensland.
"I have been silenced for four months by a Supreme Court gag order gained by a religious cult I exposed," Macgregor wrote. "The only arrow I have left in my quiver is public scrutiny of this. I believe it is in the interest of all journalists that the story is covered."
Immediately, the story got complicated.
Ivory's Rock Conference Centre is connected to a Malibu-based group called Elan Vital Inc, which is headed by Indian-born Prem Rawat, also known as Guru Maharaji. The guru's followers are called premies, from a Hindi word sometimes translated as "giver of love". Elan Vital describes itself as "a charitable organisation that promotes the message of Maharaji". Others, including Macgregor, call it a cult.
Macgregor was a premie for 28 years until he became disenchanted with Elan Vital and in 2000 broke away. In 2002 he wrote about his experiences in Fairfax's Good Weekend magazine and The West Australian in a story that also aired allegations of financial and other improprieties within the group.
Last year a contact told Macgregor that while repairing computers belonging to Ivory's Rock executives he had come across documents relating to the centre's finances, apparently including details of people who had made donations to Elan Vital
"I was interested," Macgregor says. "I thought [the documents] could possibly form part of an article. I think there is major financial scamming going on...under the guise of advancing a spiritual cause."
The contact sent 11 computer files to Macgregor, who says he posted one of them on Forum Seven, one of several online message boards run by ex-premies about their Elan Vital experiences. (An Elan Vital spokesperson describes them as hate groups.)
In October, Ivory's Rock went to the Queensland Supreme Court and obtained a search-and-seize order, known as an Anton Pillar order, authorising it to gain access to Macgregor's laptop computer and retrieve the files.
Macgregor says it is a worrying precedent that an Anton Pillar order be used against a reporter.
However, Ivory's Rock solicitor, Damian Scattini, of Brisbane firm Quinn & Scattini, says Macgregor was not acting as an investigative journalist.
"A journalist obeys the code of ethics ... He wanted these documents to harm my clients," Scattini says. "My client was genuinely aggrieved by this betrayal by someone in stealing the documents. They are commercially sensitive ... business documents. Macgregor is trying to make them into something they aren't. He wants to use them to manufacture evidence of illegal behaviour."
Initially, Macgregor refused to allow the Elan Vital's lawyers access to his laptop, for which he was found to be in contempt of court and fined $2000.
In the latest hearing, 10 days ago, Macgregor's lawyers argued that the documents should not be covered by the privilege of confidentiality because they described illegalities. But Supreme Court justice John Muir found otherwise.
"I had some concerns about whether this material could be properly said to be confidential and not in the public arena but I was taken to material ... which leads me to the conclusion that those concerns are not justified," Muir says in his judgment. "In any event I received no submissions which persuaded me that the order sought by the applicants was lacking in legal justification in this respect."
He also says that although it was true Macgregor "has unlawfully used property the subject of the applicants" (that is, the 11 documents), it did not appear he had displayed "mala fides [bad faith] in his opposition of the applicant's claims".
The judge ordered that the files be erased from Macgregor's hard drive, permanently barred him from revealing their contents and ordered him to pay all costs -- which Scattini estimates will top $100,000. Judge Muir also lifted a gag order on the case, enabling Macgregor to speak publicly about it.
Macgregor says he still believes revealing the documents is in the public interest. He is considering an appeal and his objection to the costs claim will be heard in mid-April.
"This is about a cult wanting to keep its leader out of the media spotlight," he says. "It's about people with deep pockets using the legal system to silence critics."
But Scattini dismisses Macgregor as just "a disgruntled former member" of Elan Vital. "Five times he has been found wanting by the Supreme Court," he says. "He is just an obsessed person and obsessed people do irrational things."
Prem Rawat is scheduled to come to Ipswich next month for a conference at Ivory's Rock. It will have the theme of "inner-peace and personal fulfilment" and 4000 people are expected to attend