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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era