Detective on trail of TV pair
Daily Telegraph, Thursday, November 20 1997, page 14
The maker of a programme on Scientology says he has been the victim of 'subtle harassment'. TOM UTTLEY reports.
An american private detective, hired by attorneys acting for the Church of Scientology, has approached friends and relations of the makers of a British television biography of the Church's founder, visiting home addresses discovered by trickery.
He has then spread allegations that the film-makers may be implicated in an international conspiracy of extortion and money-laundering.
Simon Berthon, the executive producer ot the film about L. Ron Hubbard, shown in the Secret Lives series on Channel 4 last night, condemned the detective's activities yesterday as a "peculiar and subtle form of harassment".
He said the Scientologists' agents had somehow managed to establish which telephone numbers he and the film's producer-director, Jill Robinson, had recently rung on their private lines.
Those numbers had then been rung by a woman claiming to be conducting a survey of television-viewing habits. The woman promised a year's free magazine subscription to those who took part in the survey- thereby tricking the film makers' contacts into revealing their addresses. Soon afterwards, the detective, Eugene M Ingram, of Los Angeles, arrived on the friends' doorsteps, saying he was inquiring about Mr Berthon and Ms Robinson in connection with an international conspiracy of extortion and money-laundering.
Mr Berthon said that the allegations appeared to have sprung from a payment of £2,000 that his company had made for access to an archive of material on the Scientologists.
Ms Robinson, 45, said yesterday that about eight of her friends and associates in England, including her parents and hairdresser, had been visited by Mr Ingram. Four of those had earlier received telephone calls from a woman claiming to to conducting a survey of television viewing habits.
She said that she and her crew has also been followed by detectives in the United States, Canada and England, ever since they started making the film last June.
"It's a bit spooky," she said. "I just don't see what it is they hope to achieve, except they seek to intimidate me."
Mr Berthon said that when friends began to complain that they had been visited by Mr Ingram, he checked with 12 friends and relations whom he had recently telephoned from home.
"Out of 12 calls made, I have discovered that nine have been telephoned by a woman offering a free magazine if they take part in a TV viewing-habit survey and give their name and address. Three of those nine had subsequently been visited by Mr Ingram.
"This is well beyond coincidence," said Mr Berthon.
Among them was a friend and neighbour, Charlotte Joll, whom he had telephoned recently to accept a children's-party invitation for his daughter. She said: "Last Friday afternoon a man rang on the doorbell showing me his private investigator's licence and then asked me if I knew someone he was trying to get in touch with.
"He showed me three photographs of a man I had never seen before and said this guy was wanted for some kind of offence to do with getting money fraudulently. I had no idea what it was about. Then he mentioned Simon Berthon's name. Did I know him? I said "Yes, our children are friends." I then remembered that our au pair had told me a couple of days earlier that she had been rung by someone purporting to be doing research on our television viewing habits, offering her a year's free subscription to her favourite magazine and asking for our address."
Miss Joll said that Mr Ingram had not mentioned the Scientologists.
Another of Mr Berthon's friends who was asked to take part in a telephone survey was Dorothy Byrne, the editor of ITV's The Big Story.
She said that Mr Ingram had telephoned her at her office at 20-20 Vision, saying that he was a private detective investigating extortion, and asking for information about Mr Berthon and Ms Robinson.
"I told him that Simon was one of the most highly regarded people in television. I also told him that in Britain we don't really approve of private detectives hanging around outside people's houses.
"Then on Friday I recieved a phone call from a woman saying that she was doing a survey of TV viewing habits. I told her I didn't want to answer her questions. She said she represented as organisation called Clark TV which makes TV programmes. I thought it was peculiar that they would be doing surveys of viewing habits."
Bernard Clark, chief executive of Clark TV Productions, said yesterday that his company never conducted surveys of that sort. "There is no way we would ever do TV viewing surveys," he said. "They have made a mistake by using our name."
Another friend of Mr Berthon's who preferred not to be named, said the family au pair had received a telephone call last Thursday from a woman telling a "cock-and-bull story about a survey". The au pair had been promised a free magazine subscription and had given her address.
On Sunday Mr Berthon's friend answered the door to a man who said he was a private detective, trying to find a man who had put money into a laundering account.
He showed her a photograph of Mr Berthon getting into his car and asked if she knew him. He then said that Mr Berthon had put the money into the "laundering account" and that this was an offence.
The friend said: "I said I was surprised to hear that because he was an upright citizen with a good reputation. He did not mention the Scientologists once.
"I thought 'how the hell did he get my number?' Then we worked backwards.
"The thing that worries me is how they can get particulars of the numbers Simon had rung."
Asked about these facts this week, the Church of Scientology said: "It sounds very intriguing. It sounds bizarre."
Graeme Wilson, public affairs director of the Church in the United Kingdom, said that Mr Ingram had been hired by an American attorney, Elliot J Abelson of Los Angeles, which acted for the Church. He faxed to The Daily Telegraph a latter from Mr Abelson to D J Freeman, Mr Berthon's solicitor, replying to a complaint [word missing, possibly "statement"] made by Mr Berthon and dismissing all allegations against Mr Ingram's conduct as false.
In it, Mr Abelson said that he had hired Mr Ingram to investigate international conspirators who were trying to extort money from Churches of Scientology with help from the media.
Mr Berthon and Ms Robinson had been in touch with some of these people, said Mr Abelson. "Consequently I have retained Mr Ingram, as part of his investigatory duties, to determine whether individuals including Ms Robinson and her producer Simon Berthon are knowingly acting in furtherance of the intentions of the suspected conspirators."
Mr Abelson said in the letter: "Mr Ingram is pursuing his investigation candidly and openly in direct contrast to Ms Robinson's inquiries in the United States. Any complaints about his activities in this regard from your clients are rejected."
For the Church, Mr Wilson said that in preparing the documentary, Mr Berthon's 3MB Television had made no attempt to contact either the Church of Scientology or Mr Hubbard's authorised biographer.
Instead, Ms Robinson had travelled across America interviewing the "worst possible detractors she could dredge up."
Mr Ingram could not be reached last night.
In 1984 a British High Court Judge attacked the Church of Scientology as "corrupt, sinister and dangerous."
"It is sinister," said Mr Justice Latey, "because it indulges in sinister practices both to its adherents who do not toe the line unquestioningly and to those outside who criticise or oppose it." Mr Hubbard died in 1986.
A Home Office spokesman said that he thought it was not a criminal offence to run a bogus telephone survey in order to discover addresses.
"It is deceptive, but I can't see how it could form an offence of deception," he said.
Sidebar: LEGAL MOVES
The Scientologists are considering taking legal action against Channel 4 following last night's highly critical programme on the activities of their founder, L. Ron Hubbard, writes Victoria Combe, Churches Correspondent.
The movement, which has a following of Hollywood stars including John Travolta and Nicole Kidman, has enlisted the services of the libel solicitor, Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners.
The Scientologists claim that that programme, in the Secret Lives series, was "grossly unfair" and amounts to a "character assassination" of L. Ron Hubbard.
Their solicitors have written to the Independent Television Commission attacking the methods used in making the documentary and demanding "immediate intervention".
The Scientology movement is now recognised as a church by the United States tax authorities.