In shades of John Barilaro’s police raid on Friendly Jordies, a local newspaper has been visited by police for ‘harassing’ a Liberal councillor and threatened with action from the Fixated Persons Unit. Michael Sainsbury with the story of police and political harassment of journalists.
Hawkesbury Post editor and co-owner Samantha Magnusson had barely walked in the door on the evening of Tuesday August 22, when her dogs began to bark madly. Her partner went outside to calm them and returned with two local police officers who wanted to interview Magnusson.
They had been sent following a complaint by Hawkesbury City Council Mayor Sarah McMahon, who is also a vice-president of the NSW Division of the Liberal Party and its twice failed candidate for the Federal seat of Macquarie, which encompasses the HCC and Blue Mountains local government areas.
“I am here today in relation to the receipt of a complaint by the Mayor Sarah McMahon in relation to being harassed by yourself … do you have contact with her?” one of the police officers asked.
Magnusson responded that she had, maybe, met her once almost a decade ago and had never contacted her. “I run the Hawkesbury Post and she doesn’t like what I am writing about.”
When queried further, the police admitted that the basis of the complaint had been two recent letters. One sent by the Hawkesbury Post’s lawyers to McMahon’s domestic partner, local property developer Matthew Bennett, also a Liberal Party member and official in a local branches. (Bennett has denied he is a property developer, although he and associates have been involved in property development.)
The letter demanded that he take down a fake Facebook site designed to mislead and confuse the public and which contained clearly defamatory material about Magnusson and her business partner Gendy Parry-Okden and the Hawkesbury Post.
The other letter, sent only 48 hours before the police visit, was to members of the NSW Liberal Party State Executive. This was to alert them to McMahon and Bennett’s defamatory campaign using the fake Facebook sites and McMahon’s ratepayer owned Facebook platform against the publication and its owners,.
“Within 48 hours of lodging a formal complaint with the Liberal Party against the campaign of intimidation, defamation, and harassment orchestrated by the Mayor – the police were at my doorstep. You couldn’t dream this stuff up; it’s like a chapter out of a playbook from Putin’s Russia,” Magnusson said.
“Ultimately this campaign of threats, intimidation, and disinformation harms the community. The actions of the Mayor and her boyfriend reflect poorly upon them and cast a shadow on the reputation of the Liberal Party itself.”
Earlier this year, Magnusson and Parry-Okeden teamed up to buy upstart online publication Hawkesbury Post in the wake of the closure of another local newspaper the Hawkesbury Courier and increasingly thin and non-critical coverage from the Hawkesbury Gazette. Magnusson and Parry-Okeden believe residents deserved better coverage of local issues and how their rates were being spent. The Courier and the Gazette have both since closed.
Since then they have uncovered, amongst other stories, an eye-watering $35 million loan taken out by council to cover a mismanaged sewer repair job (the HCC annual budget is only $170 million), a multi year bungled (non) repair job on a collapse road and river bank that the NSW government has been forced to step in and fund; and, the danger to koalas from development in behind Richmond and Windsor.
At Magnusson’s home on Tuesday evening, police said they were investigating McMahon’s allegations and suggested that McMahon may apply for Apprehended Personal Violence Order on Magnusson.
By the time they left, police said there were no grounds at all to issue such an order. It was the fourth complaint McMahon had made to the police about Magnusson.
A person claiming to be a member of McMahon’s family has also made violent online threats against Magnusson and her business partner. Further, Magnusson’s ute adorned with anti-developer posters that included McMahon’s face, was vandalised during the 2021 council elections. The perpetrator remains unknown, and there is no imputation here that the perpetrators are connected to people mentioned in this story.
“A society that values its democracy must fiercely protect the press. Standing idly while individuals engage in such conduct, the Liberal Party risks compromising its democratic ideals,” Magnusson said.
McMahon has also previously used the legal system to have a provisional Apprehended Personal Violence Order (APVO) taken out against a local man whose questions she did not like at council meetings.
The police withdrew the claim due to lack of evidence when it got to the magistrate court, yet McMahon continues to wield the term AVO in social media posts. She also claims that people are hounding her children, then posts pictures of them, and “stalking her” at her house, of which she then also posts pictures.
“I believe Sarah sees people as her bitter enemy if they don’t support her politics,”
Richmond business woman Linda Fenech told MWM. “She makes it a personal mission to hurt their reputation. I know I am not the only person this has happened to, and many people are really scared to speak up. In my case, I stopped speaking up and started to keep my views to myself, because I was scared about what she might say to damage my business. I am still quite nervous about it.
“I have been blocked from business pages that she is admin on and also blocked from taking part in any discussion on the official mayor’s Council page. It’s important to remember that not everyone will have the same perspective, and that’s why open dialogue and respectful communication are crucial.”
Magnusson cut her journalistic teeth on the business desk of The Australian in the 1990’s and early 2000s before moving into the kinder hours and better pay of communication advisory in order to survive as a single mother. She was also a senior player in her then-brother-in-law’s Malcom Turnbull’s 2004 campaign for the federal seat of Wentworth, yet in one her typically wild claims, McMahon believes that Magnusson has a vendetta against the Liberal Party.
that’s why we started Hawkesbury Matters, to shed light on the secret world of property development and local government
In 2021, Magnusson and Parry-Okden became aware that the route for a new bridge over the Hawkesbury at Richmond was being influenced by property developer interests on the other side of the river. So they started an activist Facebook page they named Hawkesbury Matters that has utilised Magnusson’s writing skills to canvass the nexus between councillors and property developers.
It began exploring other serious local issues such as the spread of poisonous PFAS chemicals from the Richmond RAAF base, recently the subject of a class action settlement with the Defence Department as well as council inaction on road and mismanagement of local river bank repairs. The site also used visual satire, which also appears to have upset McMahon, say Liberal Party insiders.
Magnusson said that shortly after writing an article about the business dealings of Bennett she received a defamation threat from Eddie Obeid’s lawyer who was representing McMahon. McMahon has also said previously she would report Magnusson to the Fixated Person’s Unit.
“The closer we looked the more concerned we became. And that’s why we started Hawkesbury Matters, to shed light on the secret world of property development and local government,” she said.
That secret world is something that’s also in the sights of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption which has repeatedly – and is continuing to – investigate both local and state government representatives and developers in Greater Western Sydney.
Media control measures
McMahon is also deploying council management to try and control and censor the media with a new draft media policy now under “consultation”, according to Magnusson and Parry-Okeden.
“This policy endows the Council with authority to selectively respond to media inquiries based on its discretion. Additionally, it outlines a code of conduct that the media must comply with to receive responses,” they wrote in a submission to the draft policy.
“Unrestricted access to governmental information via free and independent media is fundamental to a thriving democracy. Hawkesbury City Council’s proposed ability to selectively respond to media inquiries undermines this crucial watchdog role, creating a power imbalance and potentially resulting in a less-informed LGA.”
The Council’s new policy effort comes in the wake of reports that the Hills Council is censoring local social media with their own new policy that locals have decried as “un-democratic.” Hills Council Mayor Peter Gangemi was referred to ICAC last year.
Despite the best, and worst, efforts of McMahon and Bennett, Hawkesbury locals seem to like what they are getting. The paper’s Facebook page has almost 23,000 followers – a number that climbs steadily every month. Its unique visitors numbers are running at 150,000 a month – besting most local papers in similarly populated regions with 116% engagement, compared to an average of similar sites. Earlier this week that spiked to 41,000 unique visitors one day on the back of what Parry-Okeden says was a “bread and butter local news story.”
“It is important for a community to have an independent, reliable, regular source of news,” former HCC councillor Christine Paine told MWM. “The Hawkesbury Post provides this and is now our only avenue of knowing what is happening in the Hawkesbury, thank you Hawkesbury Post.”
Magnusson says that what McMahon is doing in trying to silence the publication is a fundamental affront on democracy.
“The demise of community media means that local councillors and politicians are not being held accountable. There is no one to provide the checks and balances for government transparency and the healthy functioning of democracy. The bottom line is that ratepayers have a right to know how their money is being spent and who and what is influencing their representatives,” she says.
*The author has written freelance articles for the Hawkesbury Post. McMahon now refuses to speak to him.
Michael Sainsbury is a former China correspondent who has lived and worked across North, Southeast and South Asia for 11 years. Now based in regional Australia, he has more than 25 years’ experience writing about business, politics and human rights in Australia and the Indo-Pacific. He has worked for News Corp, Fairfax, Nikkei and a range of independent media outlets and has won multiple awards in Australia and Asia for his reporting. He is a fierce believer in the importance of independent media.