Evening the score: Rupert Murdoch and the Scientologists

As hard as it has tried, the Church of Scientology has yet to avenge a decades-long crusade against it by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, writes Steve Cannane.

ABC, Australia/November 5, 2016

By Steve Cannane

What was Rupert Murdoch thinking?

The veteran media mogul launched an extraordinary attack on Scientology in July 2012, following the marriage breakdown of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

"Scientology back in news," Murdoch tweeted. "Very weird cult, but big, big money involved with Tom Cruise either No. 2 or 3 in hierarchy."

In case anyone thought he didn't mean it, the News Corp CEO published a second edition a few hours later: "Watch Katie Holmes and Scientology story develop," he warned, "Something creepy, maybe even evil, about these people."

Those two tweets became big news at the time. Murdoch was calling the world's most litigious religion a weird, wealthy, creepy cult.

In the US, Scientology had become a no-go zone for most media organisations. Murdoch's archrivals at TimeWarner became bogged down in a costly decade-long legal battle after the Church of Scientology unsuccessfully sued TIME magazine over Richard Behar's searing expose, The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power, published in 1991.

So why would Murdoch tempt fate and brazenly bait Scientology and its golden boy Cruise?

Murdoch wasn't just a media proprietor; he also ran a movie studio, which could financially benefit from keeping one of Hollywood's most bankable stars onside.

What wasn't reported at the time was that Murdoch had a long history of going after Scientology. His views on what he called a "very weird cult" were formed more than 50 years previously, and can be found inside the fading pages of a muckraking Australian scandal sheet he published long before he became a global media player.

Truth's pursuit of 'Bunkumology'

In 1960, Rupert Murdoch bought his first big city newspaper, Sydney's Daily Mirror. As part of the deal he also acquired the Mirror's wayward sibling Truth, a newspaper that survived on a staple of scandal, crime and racing form. It also had built a reputation for exposing scam artists and charlatans.

After Murdoch purchased Truth, it started going after Scientology.

On Saturday December 2, 1961, Truth published a "special investigation" under the headline: Bunkumology — Cult of Experts at Smear Tactics.

Truth laid out a series of sensational allegations about the local Scientology operation ripping off vulnerable people and trying to intimidate critics such as Catholic priest and broadcaster, Dr Leslie Rumble, and Dr C.H. Dickson from the local Medical Association.

Over the next three years, Murdoch's muckraking tabloid ran a series of exposes referring to Scientology, at all times, as 'Bunkumology'.

Truth's reporting helped put the issue of Scientology abuses on the public agenda. In 1963, the world's first public inquiry into Scientology began in Victoria. It ran for 15 months and heard evidence from 151 witnesses. The head of the inquiry, Kevin Anderson QC, in his final report said:

"Scientology is evil; its techniques evil; its practice a serious threat to the community, medically, morally and socially; and its adherents sadly deluded and often mentally ill"

Within three months, Scientology was banned in Victoria, the first place in the world to outlaw the organisation. The punishments included fines and imprisonment, but in the eight years after the Victorian legislation was introduced, there was not one successful prosecution against a Scientologist or a Scientology organisation.

Even so, Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard was not happy his organisation had been outlawed and driven underground. In 1959, in his Manual of Justice, his top-secret guide on how to deal with critics, Hubbard had written: "People attack Scientology, I never forget it, always even the score."

For more than 40 years, Scientology would try its best to even the score with Murdoch, one of the men Hubbard held responsible for the ban.

Evening the score

On the morning of September 10, 1968, Rex Beaver was given one of Scientology's notorious security checks at the organisation's Sydney headquarters at 340 Pitt Street.

Beaver was not a Scientologist; he was a private investigator who answered an advertisement the Church of Scientology had placed in the previous day's Daily Mirror that said: "Investigator — Services of Trained Personnel Required for Interesting Work."

As a private investigator, Beaver was used to asking uncomfortable questions. Now he was on the receiving end of an interrogation. "Are you a pervert?" he was asked. "Are you or have you ever been a communist?"

Beaver gripped his hands on a pair of tin cans attached to an E-Meter — a primitive lie detector used by Scientologists — as the questions kept coming: "Are you a homosexual? Have you ever had unkind thoughts about L. Ron Hubbard?"

After Beaver passed the security check, the Scientologists hired him to spy on a number of prominent Sydney figures. Included on his list were five psychiatrists, one clergyman, 14 NSW parliamentarians and Rupert Murdoch.

Beaver didn't think much of the Scientologists. "I thought they were a bunch of ratbags," he told me.

Soon after being hired to spy on the young publisher, Beaver headed to the office of Brian Hogben, the editor of the Daily Mirror.

The private investigator offered to act as a double agent, spying on Murdoch for the Scientologists, while feeding information back to the newspaper for a future tabloid expose. Hogben arranged for a meeting between Rex and Rupert.

"Rupert was rapt," says Beaver.

"He even volunteered to have a photograph taken of himself emerging from a motel with his secretary!"

Beaver told Murdoch there was no need for mocked-up photos. All that was required was some personal details.

Murdoch obliged, telling the investigator his home address, where his yacht was moored and giving him free access to the newspaper's clippings library. Hogben lent Beaver a special spy camera so he could take a photo of Scientology's surveillance hit list, but the investigator could not get a clean shot of it, with so many Scientologists bustling through the office.

With bonuses included, Beaver was now pulling in over $100 a week to spy on critics or suspected critics of Scientology. But after a month of operating as a double agent, he pulled the pin.

'This is the face of Scientology'

Murdoch was ready to run with the story. On October 20, 1968, the Sunday Mirror splashed its expose on the front page with the headline: Blackmail! Detective Says Cult Hired Him to Spy on City MP — Sensation Expected.

The Sunday Mirror reported that "a private detective revealed yesterday that he had been hired to get blackmail evidence to silence a member of state parliament".

The story also mentioned the surveillance of Murdoch: "The Scientologists have declared Mr Murdoch an official 'enemy' since the Sunday Mirror challenged the cult: sue and be damned!"

With the help of Beaver, the Sunday Mirror had secured a photo of Martin Bentley — the Scientology operative who had hired the private investigator. The following Sunday, they ran the picture accompanied by the headline: This is the Face of Scientology.

An editorial described Scientology as a "money-making racket which encourages fanatics and charges high fees for using harmful psychological practices on the sort of people most likely to be harmed by them".

Rupert Murdoch was proud of the role his newspapers played in exposing Scientology

In 1972, while delivering the AN Smith Lecture in Journalism, he gave credit to Truth for establishing the inquiry that led to Scientology being banned in Victoria. "As a result of Truth campaigns the practice of Scientology has been legislated against," he said.

While in reality Truth's crusade in the 1960s was not the sole reason why the inquiry was established, both the Scientologists and Murdoch believed that his muckraking newspaper had been responsible for triggering the first ban on Scientology in the world.

Scientology was subsequently banned in South Australia and Western Australia as well as Victoria. However, the laws were impossible to enforce. Police would conduct raids on Scientologists' homes and find books and manuals, but how could they prove that the teaching of Scientology was taking place?

The Scientologists were declaring publicly they would break the law, but the police could not find the evidence with which to charge them. It was like raiding an illegal casino and finding roulette tables, but no gambling taking place.

The legislation banning Scientology in the three states was voided when Labor attorney-general Lionel Murphy introduced federal legislation that overrode the bans in 1972.

Revenge: James Packer and Tom Cruise

Nearly 40 years after Scientology was banned in Victoria, and decades after practising Scientology had become legal once more, the cult was still looking for ways to seek revenge on Murdoch.

From the ashes of a corporate disaster they thought they had found the perfect way to follow through on Hubbard's orders to "even the score".

In 2002, James Packer was in a bad place. His marriage to Jodhi Meares had broken down and he was dealing with the fallout of the One.Tel debacle, which had cost the Packers and the Murdochs over $700 million.

Friends feared Packer was in danger of taking his own life. In a TV interview over a decade later, he would admit that during this period: "I became depressed and I was emotionally exhausted … I felt isolated, I felt like a failure, you know, it was not a great time in my life."

Hollywood superstar Cruise reached out to Packer and offered to help him. The businessman would later describe the actor as being "an amazing friend" at that time.

Cruise got Packer into Scientology, and by many accounts it helped him overcome his depression. But it seems the mission to recruit him was not entirely altruistic; the operation was at least in part about seeking revenge on Murdoch.

Former Scientologist Marty Rathbun was, at the time, second in charge of Scientology worldwide. He was assigned to be James Packer's 'point man' and give him Scientology counselling, known as auditing. He told me that getting to Lachlan Murdoch was a big part of the Packer recruitment operation and that the orders came straight from Scientology's leader, David Miscavige:

"Tom and myself and Miscavige all were impressed with the idea that he [James Packer] was very tight close friends with one of Rupert Murdoch's sons and so the idea was, in Tom's concept and Dave fully endorsed it, and so did I, was to win Jamie over and ultimately get our claws into News Corp.

The files Marty Rathbun was referring to were stored in the offices of Scientology's intelligence bureau in Los Angeles.

In 1981, Rathbun had sifted through the top secret files while working on a special project and found that "Rupert Murdoch was right up there with the heads of banking and the heads of the pharmaceutical industries as the sort of James Bondian Mr X villains".

While Rathbun believes Cruise wanted to help Packer, he says a significant part of the operation was about getting revenge on behalf of Hubbard for the role Rupert Murdoch's newspapers had played in triggering the bans in Australia.

"We were actively talking about this, that this would be the coup of all coups to get the son of Rupert Murdoch! We thought he was potentially the guy who was going to help take over the evil genius Murdoch's empire."

But the plan came to nothing.

Lachlan Murdoch was never recruited by the Church of Scientology. In 2012, soon after his father sent out those infamous Scientology tweets, he told The Daily Beast: "I probably come close to sharing my father's views about the religion, but I resist tweeting them."

As hard as it has tried, Scientology has yet to even the score with Rupert Murdoch.

James Packer, Rupert Murdoch, Lachlan Murdoch and representatives from the Church of Scientology declined to speak with Steve Cannane for his book, Fair Game: The Incredible Untold Story of Scientology in Australia.

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