The Church of Scientology, Vanity Fair and an astonishing lawyer's letter

"It is inconceivable (to the entire world) that Mr. Cruise would have difficulty getting a girlfriend," writes a lawyer for the Church.

In its most recent issue, Vanity Fair published a piece by Maureen Orth on the Church of Scientology, which encompassed the relationship between its leader, David Miscavige, and its most famous adherent, Tom Cruise.

The magazine put 32 questions to the Church (and if you think that's a lot, remember the New Yorker asked it 1,000 queries for its mega-long profile of Paul Haggis, "The Apostate"). 

The questions elicited a furious response, delivered via Jeffrey K. Riffer, of the law firm Elkins Kalt Weintraub Reuben Gartside LLP. The Church has posted the missive on its media response site [PDF]. 

It is quite unlike any lawyer's letter I have ever seen before. Here are some extracts:

We are writing regarding your, your editor’s and reporter’s shoddy journalism, religious bigotry and potential legal liability arising out of Vanity Fair’s upcoming story about the Tom Cruise divorce. Significantly, while Maureen Orth was preparing her story, Vanity Fair ignored its staff and contributors who have firsthand knowledge of Mr. Cruise and of Mr. Miscavige and who would burden her story with the truth.

... Her request for an “interview” of Mr. Miscavige was a disingenuous sham, since she couldn’t possibly have thought that an “Oh, by the way” phone call to the Church’s Public Affairs office requesting an interview with the ecclesiastical leader of the religion could possibly be accommodated. If she were serious, she would have done at least a molecule of research in seeing that Mr. Miscavige travels across the country and around the world almost non-stop, unlike the anti-Scientologist apostate sources who form the basis of her already-written story and who are available on a moment’s notice at the press of “send” on any anti-Scientology hate-site blog. Is it usual for you to take over the editorial direction of Vanity Fair articles or is that reserved for hatchet-jobs of minority religions and its members?

Jeffrey K. Riffer did not like the thrust of the story:

Vanity Fair, which once had a reputation for journalistic integrity, is now reduced to asking the leader of a religion in its 32nd, and final question: “Would David Miscavige comment on the notion that he has been a kind of third wheel in Tom Cruise’s relationships and marriages?” Mr. Miscavige is the ecclesiastical leader of a worldwide religion; a man of impeccable character who is dedicated to his faith and to the service of its parishioners. He respects the institution of marriage and those who enter into it.

Jeffrey K. Riffer does not like people denigrating David Miscavige's achievements, which are monumental:

Mr. Miscavige is the leader of a dynamic global religion expanding across five continents. His duties are herculean and accomplishments monumental. He is not a “third wheel” to anything or anyone. Ms. Orth is apparently willing to besmirch Mr. Miscavige’s reputation based on unreliable sources to sell magazines, while ignoring the decades of his tireless service to advance the Scientology religion as well as its international humanitarian programs for all mankind, while also ignoring reliable sources available at her discretion, e.g., Vanity Fair employees who know Mr. Miscavige personally, including a Vanity Fair employee who works for Mr. Miscavige in a professional capacity. 

Jeffrey K. Riffer thinks that the story amounts to bigotry:

Ms. Orth appears to have only gleaned her information from fringe hate sites and their webmasters. If she were writing a story about a Sikh religious leader, would she first latch onto the sites of white supremacists, then interview their most virulent and violent members and follow it up with mere “fact check” questions to the Sikhs themselves? At the eleventh hour? And refuse to give the names of her white supremacist sources?

The scenario is no different here. Scientology is a new religion and its beliefs not as well known as those of more ancient history. That does not excuse you or Ms. Orth for being ignorant. Rather, it demands you be even more sensitive to finding out what the true beliefs are of Scientology-which can only be told by the religion itself. Just because you don't think you are bigoted doesn't mean you aren't. Bigotry and ignorance go hand in hand and you are definitely and wilfully ignorant of the actual beliefs of Scientology and the activities of its Churches.

Jeffrey K. Riffer thinks it's ludicrous to suggest that Tom Cruise would have difficulty finding a girlfriend:

Mr. Miscavige has never had any involvement with the hiring of Mr. Cruise's professional staff or press agents, certainly has never spoken to Mr. Cruise's sister about them and allegations of joking around about Mr. Cruise's romantic relations are manifestly false since it is inconceivable (to the entire world) that Mr. Cruise would have difficulty getting a girlfriend. This goes beyond not wanting to dignify a question with a response, but goes to the credibility and ethics of your journalist.

Jeffrey K. Riffer feels really, really let down by Vanity Fair:

If Vanity Fair goes forward with publication of such defamatory allegations, now that it is on notice that the story is false, the stain on its reputation will last long after any reader even remembers the article. The sting of the jury verdict will last longer still; far longer than any pleasure from racing to publish a poorly researched and sourced story.

You can read the full letter here. Hat-tip to Hadley Freeman.

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Photo: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.