How Scientologists pressurise publishers
Over and over again, critical publications have been blocked
David V Barrett
December 4, 2008
Last week we learned that Amazon.co.uk has bowed to pressure to stop selling a book by a former senior Irish Scientologist. The Complex: An Insider Exposes the Covert World of the Church of Scientology (Merlin Publishing, Dublin) describes John Duignan's 21 years in the religion, not all of it a happy tale. According to Amazon, "Unfortunately, we have had to withdraw The Complex by John Duignan in the UK because we received a specific allegation that a passage in the book is defamatory regarding an individual named in the book". Other bookshops are also thought to have been warned not to stock the book. And everyone who has ever encountered the Church of Scientology sighs and says, "Here we go again."
Scientology has a long history of trying to suppress material written about it that it doesn't like. Several times they've taken legal action to try and stop websites revealing their teachings – particularly those which, to outsiders, might look a bit odd. (I won't quote them, but just type "Xenu" into a search engine, then sit back and marvel.)
With books, their usual tactic is to get their solicitors to send out letters alleging defamation; I had one myself a few years ago. If bookshops receive such a letter, most of them chicken out immediately. They lose very little by not stocking a book - except their honour.
I was lucky. Knowing Scientology's reputation for litigiousness, when I wrote my second book on new religions eight years ago I had long discussions with a senior Scientologist. Eventually it seemed as if we'd reached an agreement: if I didn't tell the Xenu story, they wouldn't sue me for saying several other things they didn't like. We shook hands on what I thought was a deal - a gentlemen's agreement - in a tea shop somewhere in Covent Garden.
But as Samuel Goldwyn said, a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on. As the book was at the printers a long letter arrived from top libel lawyers Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners, accusing me of several counts of defamation in the previously-agreed chapter. Fortunately my publishers had a good lawyer; we made a few changes and went ahead and published, and never heard a word from Scientology or their lawyers again.
Others weren't so fortunate. Back in 1971 American writer Paulette Cooper published The Scandal of Scientology. The Church of Scientology set up a campaign called Operation Freakout to discredit her. One internal document later seized from the Church by the FBI said their aim was "To get P.C. incarcerated in a mental institution or jail, or at least to hit her so hard that she drops her attacks." She had 19 lawsuits filed against her worldwide, her neighbours received smear letters claiming she was a prostitute, and the Church falsely told the FBI she had sent them two bomb threats. In Canada the Church threatened to sue public libraries if they didn't withdraw Cooper's book and three other books on Scientology.
In 1980 the Church of Scientology asked Gerry Armstrong, stepson of the Church's president Heber Jentzsch, to research an official biography of founder L Ron Hubbard. Armstrong claimed to have discovered a disjunction between the "approved" story of Hubbard's life and what he found from Hubbard's personal archives, to which he had full access. He brought this to the attention of the Church and subsequently left Scientology, before being declared a Suppressive Person - an enemy of the Church. Armstrong had made copies of enough material to support his claims, and the Church took him to court to recover the material they said he had stolen. The court cases went on for some years and eventually the Church won. Armstrong filed for bankruptcy and fled to Canada. The Church filed further lawsuits against him in the 1990s and into the new century. There have been numerous other examples of Scientology trying to suppress criticism.
It's hardly surprising that, despite all the money they spend on PR, the Church of Scientology has such a poor public image.
But one astonishing PR coup is getting the media to quote unquestioningly Scientology's supposed membership figures: 10 million worldwide, 120,000 of them in Britain. As I've shown elsewhere the 2001 Census revealed just 1,781 Scientologists in England and Wales – less than 1.5% of the figure claimed by the Church. An official survey in America the same year estimated there were just 55,000 Scientologists in the USA, meaning that the world total can't really be any higher than 100,000 – a little different from 10 million.
I'm no opponent of new religions. Because of the unbiased descriptive stance of my books on new religious movements, anti-cultists have accused me of being a "cult apologist". I'm not that, either. I have no problem with new religions if they behave reasonably, if they're up front about their mistakes – and their membership! – and if they learn to accept criticism gracefully. Those, I think, are signs of maturity in a religion. It's a shame that some religions still act like troubled, insecure and aggressive teenagers.
Disclaimer:This news page is about groups, organizations or movements, which may have been called "cults" and/or "cult-like" in some way, shape or form. But not all groups called either "cults" or "cult-like" are harmful. Instead, they may be benign and generally defined as simply people intensely devoted to a person, place or thing. Therefore, the discussion or mention of a group, organization or person on this page, is not necessarily meant pejoratively. Readers are encouraged to read widely on a topic before forming an opinion. Never accept information from a single source at face value. This website only holds a small amount of information and should not be relied on as a complete source. For example, if you find older information, this should be weighed up against newer information as circumstances can change.