A bad day for Scientology?

The Church of Scientology in the internet age

In the heady days before the internet, an entity such as the Church of Scientology had no real difficulty in protecting its intellectual property and in seeking to uphold its reputation.

Any alleged misuse or supposed wrongful disclosure of its sacred and confidential texts could be met with a cease and desist letter to an offending publisher. Any adverse statement could perhaps be confronted with a libel threat. Any unauthorised contacts by Church members with external critics could be appropriately dealt with. The Church of Scientology were beneficiaries of the command-and-control model of media relations in a Golden Age for newly-invented religions.

Regardless of the merits of Scientology, such a model can no longer be sustained. Their sacred and confidential texts are freely available on Wikileaks. Critics of Scientology commonly exchange views and information on Twitter and elsewhere. The Church of Scientology simply does not appear as imposing as it once did.

It is in this context that we should consider the events of yesterday, a seemingly bad day for the Church of Scientology in the United Kingdom.

First, in the early afternoon, a committee met at - of all places - Cardiff City Council. They were to consider a complaint against Councillor John Dixon. He had once tweeted a hostile comment about Scientology. Some months afterwards a scientologist made a complaint to the Welsh public services ombudsman who, in a bizarre decision, upheld the basis of the complaint. Now the council were to consider whether the complaint should proceed, or whether it could just be struck out.

They struck it out emphatically. And they did so knowing that John Dixon's case was an international cause, and that around the world people were on the internet waiting for news of the outcome of their deliberations. And John Dixon himself has heartened by the extent of support on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. He knew he was not alone.

Second, last night the BBC broadcasted a rather interesting edition of Panorama, where John Sweeney followed up his previous programme (where he famously "lost it"). Again, as the programme was broadcast, hundreds of people on Twitter were happily discussing and dissecting the merits of Scientology, its practices, and its odd beliefs. Some did so anonymously, but many of us did so under our own names. People were no longer scared. There appeared to be nothing for anyone to fear.

For me, as a secularist, the belief system of Scientology is not inherently any more - or less - peculiar or preposterous than say Christianity or Islam. Lord Xenu is a figure as credible as the Angel Gabriel. As a religion and a business organisation, the Church of Scientology should of course have no greater or worse position than any other religion and business organisation.

But for many years, there has been concern as to the practices of Church of Scientology. And there was a sense that such practices could not be addressed openly and without fear. Such a sense may have always been groundless. It may be that the Church of Scientology was misunderstood all along. However, it no longer really matters; for if the Church of Scientology suddenly wanted to close down criticism and anxious scrutiny, it is no longer able to do so.

So even if yesterday was not a bad day for Scientology - indeed, they may have been glad of the attention - it was without doubt a good day for free expression.


David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He blogs for the New Statesman on legal and policy issues.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.