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A Bad Year for the Galactic Federation: Scientology in the News

The Skeptical Intelligencer (published by the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), June 2006

by Martin Poulter

For more than a decade I've been following media coverage (amongst other sources) about the Scientology cult. After some fallow years, the topic has once again received a flurry of attention, but with a couple of exceptions the journalistic work is disappointingly superficial.

A lot of the coverage has centred around Scientology's most famous adherent, Tom Cruise. Some months ago Cruise was parodied in a South Park episode called "Trapped in the Closet", not shown in this country but available over the Internet. The episode repeated a rumour that Cruise is gay and that his marriages are sham. Personally, I don't care one way or another about his sexuality, and I know that rumours have a life of their own irrespective of the facts. I'm told that back in the Seventies, Rod Stewart was dogged by rumours that he is gay (Does Rod Stewart do anything other than have sex with women? Apparently, he used to be a singer).

The fixation of the press on celebrity gossip meant that the real significance of the South Park episode was lost, because the centrepiece of the programme was a detailed explanation of the Xenu story.

Rewind to 75 million years ago. Earth was a prison planet for the Galactic Federation. A creature called Xenu brought trillions of aliens from the other planets here and blew them up with nuclear bombs in volcanoes such as Hawaii. Their spirits, implanted with confusing images including a man on a cross, now float invisibly and attach to our bodies. Okay, Hawaii didn't exist that long ago according to scientific geology, but apart from that the story is airtight.

Now fast forward to the mid-Nineties. Most of humanity is ignorant of Xenu's role in our history. The story is set out in a document called "OT3"; Scientology's copyrighted, trade-secret, licensed property. After appearing as an exhibit in a couple of US legal cases, OT3 and some other OT documents leak onto the Internet. The cult spends millions of dollars on lawsuits, legal threats and electronic tactics to stop people reading even a sentence of the material. Their determination to keep Xenu secret leads to them blanking the word out of their own documents in court. Internet users respond imaginatively, by spreading the document electronically, handing out copies on the streets, and even dressing up in alien costumes.

The internet won that battle, and the win was sealed definitively this year as the Dutch writer and internet free-speech activist Karin Spaink won the right to keep the OT documents on her web site after a ten-year legal battle. You can view her legally-approved page at http://www.spaink.net/fishman/home.html

With the cat being out of the bag, mainstream media have been bolder. South Park's detailed animated rendition of the Xenu story is an example. Scientology has had to move to another tack; saying in effect, "our religion has some strange scriptures, but don't all religions?" Some of the media coverage has accepted this framing of the issue. The more sinister and criminal aspects of the cult's history, regularly mentioned in TV and newspaper coverage back in the Nineties, have been mostly forgotten.

An example of this was a Sky News report on the day that Tom Cruise's wife was to give birth. I was involved, both on-screen as the token critical soundbite and via a hurried briefing to the presenter over the phone while I was in the taxi trying to find Sky's Bristol studio. The Sky report offered footage inside Scientology premises, but it looked like the cult had had enough say in its presentation to make it look almost like an advert.

An exception to the trend towards lazy investigation was a lengthy article in Rolling Stone magazine (23 February) that was reprinted by the Observer on 9 April. It combined undercover reporting and case studies with historical information from a variety of sources.

As a result of Scientology being out of the headlines, a whole generation have grown up knowing almost nothing about the cult except that some of Hollywood's biggest stars attribute their success to it, but also that it has some connection to a barmy story about aliens. A rash of well-researched investigations by Newsnight, ITV and the broadsheets are now about a decade old.

What am I doing about it? Well, I am working on a new web site that will archive or link to all the media I can get my hands on, preserving what I think of as the "Golden Age". Other sources, including official government reports, are already available through critical sites such as Xenu.net. I will also be giving a talk at Skeptics in the Pub in August, titled "Scientology: It's worse than you think". I will use primary sources, including leaked internal documents, to show the range of crank and anti-science beliefs that this multinational corporation aggressively promotes. I will also explain the "sinister and criminal aspects" mentioned in this article.

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