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.