Scientology, publishers and UK libel laws: a heady mix
British publishers Transworld have cancelled their publication of a new book on Scientology, after taking legal advice. Lawrence Wright’s highly anticipated book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, is based on his 2011 New Yorker article ‘The Apostate’, for which he interviewed the screenwriter and director Paul Haggis about his decision to resign from the organisation.
Wright is no stranger to investigating secretive organisations. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
Going Clear examines the Church’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, the church’s finances and its relationships with celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. It will be published by US publishers Knopf for American audiences on January 17th with a reported print run of 150,000 copies.
The decision not to publish in this country has prompted questions, particularly as Transworld had previously agreed to it. It seems likely that the threat of libel action in the UK may have contributed to the decision.
Graham Atkins, a partner at Atkins Thomson Solicitors in London who specialise in defamation cases, commented on the decision: “It is more difficult for individual claimants to successfully sue for defamation in the US and therefore it may be that the UK publishers are concerned about prominent Scientologists threatening or commencing libel proceedings in the UK.”
Transworld’s publicity director, Patsy Irwin stated: “Our legal advice was that some of the content was not robust enough for the UK market and an appropriately edited version would not fit with our schedule. The decision not to publish was taken internally.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Wright revealed that he had already received numerous letters from lawyers representing the Church of Scientology and celebrities belonging to it who are unhappy with the content of the book.
In a statement, the international spokesperson for the Church of Scientology, Karin Pouw, said: “The author and publisher refused to provide the Church with a copy of the book and showed little interest in receiving input from the Church during both the writing and the so-called ‘fact-checking’.
“Having seen how inaccurate his New Yorker article was, the Church asked numerous times for a reasonable opportunity to assist in helping making his book factual. More than 15 requests were ignored, many not answered at all. From the limited excerpts we have seen, the book contains numerous falsehoods and we think it wise that they chose not to publish it in the UK.”
British libel laws have been long been subject to fierce criticism from writers and free speech advocates around the world. They are considered by some to be overly punitive, particularly as the burden of proof falls on the defendant.
Mike Harris, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship said: “Our libel laws remain some of the most archaic in the Western world with cases in the High Court in London costing 100 times the European average. With high costs and an uncertain public interest defence, the publisher may simply have decided to back away rather than risk losing a libel case.”
He added: “The government is currently piloting legislation through Parliament to reform the law, but unfortunately it isn’t strong enough. Even under these reforms, the chill on public interest publication will remain.”