See You In Court

Punch, 19 February 1988


Ron Hubbard was dead but the Scientologists were still out to make their mark on the world. Starting with unauthorized biographer Russell Miller.

Everyone had warned me that I would be sued. They were right, I was: "the Church of Scientology of California v. Russell Miller and Penguin Books Ltd, in the Chancery Division, before Mr. Justice Vinelott." Indeed, I had barely started researching the bizarre life and times of L. Ron Hubbard before the first of many lawyer's letters arrived, advising me to desist and threatening dire consequences if I persisted.

Attorneys acting for Mr. Hubbard's estate even took the trouble to inform my publishers in New York and London that I was a liar. So thoughtful.

Strange things happened. I was followed for several days in Los Angeles. I was told my house was under constant surveillance, my mail was being intercepted, and my telephone was tapped. I became aware that teams of private detectives were trawling my friends and associates in both Europe and the United States, apparently in the hope of proving that I was an agent for the CIA, or the KGB, or MI5, or a duplicitous combination of all three. It seems they believed I took a mini-break from the book to bump off an American in East Berlin.

I do not know who was underwriting the considerable cost of these shenanigans. But you will perhaps understand that it did not come as too much of a shock when, a few weeks before scheduled publication of my book, Bare Faced Messiah, writs began to fly.

All this notwithstanding, almost the first words spoken by the learned counsel for the plaintiff on the first day in Court 18 tempted me to snort loudly and shake my head in disbelief, rather in the manner of an English cricketer given an out in Pakistan.

Mr. Alan Newman, whose beaky little nose and enormous spectacles made him look like a barn owl, assured the court that the litigation was certainly not aimed at preventing publication of my book; oh no, his clients simply wanted to protect its legal rights.

As a court is not a cricket field, I was not able to poke Mr. Newman in the chest, to my great regret. For I believed that the action had been brought precisely to stop my book being published.

The reason was not hard to find. Scientologists view their founder as a savior and a prophet whose arrival on earth was of cosmic significance; I viewed him as a power-crazy maverick, a charlatan and a liar. Scientologists believed that Ron wanted to save the world; I believed that the chances of the world being saved by someone called Ron were slim.

The Church of Scientology vigorously promotes an image of its founder as a romantic adventurer, philospher, explorer, and war hero whose early life fortuitously prepared him, in the manner of Jesus Christ, for his declared mission. As a teenager, it seems, he wandered the Orient alone, learning the secrets of life at the feet of sundry wise men.

It's all poppycock. Young Ron was a pulp science fiction writer with a vivid imagination. It is true he was an officer in the US Navy, but he was not exactly a hero. He never saw action, except to fight a furious battle with a magnetic field, which he was convinced was a Japanese submarine. Not long afterwards he fired on Mexico by mistake and was transferred to shore duty.

In 1950, out of the blue, he wrote an article for Astounding Science Fiction outlining his novel theories about how the human mind worked. Ron, never one to hide his light under a bushel, modestly described his discoveries as a "milestone for Man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his invention of the wheel".

A few years later Ron founded Scientology. He exercised such a powerful hold on his followers that when he told them he had twice visited heaven, none doubted it. On his second visit, a few trillion years ago, he noticed the place had become quite shabby and all the saints and angels had cleared off.

The Church of Scientology of California was not disputing the accuracy of my book; but as Mr. Newman plodded gamely through his case - that photographs, diaries and letters were used in breach of copyright or confidence - it seemed to me that he had a pretty good argument. I became more and more depressed.

Strangers to the arcane procedures and nuances of the British legal system often find it impossible to assess which way the wind is blowing and I was no exception. Someone had told me earlier to watch how often the judge made notes as an indication of the importance he bestowed on what was being said. I was gloomily aware that Mr. Justice Vinelott seemed to be writing an awful lot.

By the morning of the second day, with the barn owl still on his feet, he had persuaded at least one person in the courtroom that Russell Miller was an unscrupulous rotter who had run roughshod over poor old L. Ron Hubbard, not to mention the Church of Scientology's legal rights - myself.

The only moment of faint hope came when Mr. Newman, who I assume has never written a book, blithely offered his view that it would be simplicity itself to re-write the book, omitting those passages to which his client objected. As I inadvertently rolled my eyes the judge glanced down at me. Was that a hint of a smile hovering on his Lordship's lips?

In the afternoon, an elderly gentleman with tousled grey hair appeared in the press box. It transpired he was from The Times. I assumed his presence reflected the great importance of the case. I was wrong - he laid his head on his notebook and appeared to go to sleep, occasionally rearing up and glaring around the courtroom for a few seconds in a daze.

I was disappointed that he was not paying a little more attention because it was, at last, my side's turn to speak up. Thus, while The Times correspondent took the weight off his neck, I was being portrayed in mildly favourable terms and the plaintiff was being cast in the unscrupulous rotter role. This was very cheering.

Our case was that all the material in my book was legitimately obtained and that its publication was justified in the public interest. In an interlocutory hearing all the evidence is presented in affidavit form, which meant I was denied an appearance in the witness box or an opportunity to address the court in any way except through the stultifying medium of the sworn affidavit, which normally included phrases like "I do verily believe..."

One of the planks of our defence was that the plaintiff's reputation was so besmirched that it did not come to litigation with "clean hands". While this point was being argued, I passed a note to Gavin Lightman, our QC, to tell him about some of the dirty tricks that had been played on me since I started writing the book.

"Someone told the police," I wrote, "that I was responsible for a murder in South London earlier this year."

Mr Lightman scrawled "Were you?" under the message and passed it back.

By the third day it was hard not to be a little optimistic. At one point Mr Newman had put forward the fatuous proposition that the photograph on the dust-jacket of my book might lead people to believe it was an "authorized" biography.

"Come, come Mr Newman," the good judge chided, "I hardly think that a book with the title Bare-Faced Messiah could ever be thought of as an official biography. In any case, one would only have to read a few sentences to realize that it was not."

There were moments during the case, and this was one, when the temptation to give the judge a wink was almost irresistible.

In the afternoon, the correspondent from The Times turned up and again appeared to sleep soundly through the barn owl's summing up, which was a dreary recital of legal precedents. By comparison, our Gavin was dazzling, making his points with commendable brevity. He was also inordinately pleased with himself for posing the rhetorical question: "Honestly, would you buy a second-hand car from these people [the Church of Scientology]?"

"Did you like that bit about the second-hand car?" he asked chirpily at the end of the day's hearing. "I thought that was rather good." I could swear that Mr Lightman believed it to be an original analogy.

As the case dragged into its fourth day I was forcibly struck by the fact that of all the people involved in Church of Scientology v. Miller, I not only had the most to lose (no book, no royalties, three years' work wasted) but I was also the only person in the entire courtroom who was not being paid. It also occurred to me that I had not worn a suit and a tie on four consecutive days for more than twenty years.

By mid-morning, the arguments were at last concluded and Mr Justice Vinelott retired to consider his judgement. He said that he would not need very long and this was taken as definitely a good sign by our side. We passed the time huddled over coffee in the High Court's cheerless canteen, carefully avoiding eye contact with the "other lot", huddled in the opposite corner.

When the judge returned to Court 18, I was reminded of stories of how returning juries never look at the accused man if they are going to find him guilty. It seemed to me that the judge was staring resolutely into space as he took his seat.

I found myself gripping the bench in front of me, white-knuckled, as he began his judgement. Speaking slowly and carefully, he first outlined the background to the case with scrupulous attention to detail before turning to the grounds on which the injunction was sought.

The claim that the plaintiff would be injured by infringement of copyright in the photograph used on the dust-jacket was, said the judge, "simply incredible". Neither could the use of another photograph possibly be harmful. Another of the plaintiff's claims he found to be "flimsy". I heartily agreed.

As the blood returned to my knuckles, I began to enjoy life in Court 18 and to reflect on the sheer brilliance of the English judiciary. Such perception, such wisdom, such insight! I was stirred from my reverie by a vague awareness that the judge had mentioned my name. "I have read Mr. Miller's biography," he said, "or the larger part of it, and it is to my mind..."

For one heart-stopping moment I thought he was going to say something along the lines of it being a damn good read and how he couldn't put it down. I could see the covers of forthcoming paperback editions emblazoned with glowing High Court endorsements: "Thoroughly recommended - Mr Justice Vinelott."

Actually, what he did say was still pretty satisfying: "... It is to my mind clear that the public interest in the affairs of the Church and in the life of its founder far outweigh any duty or confidence that could possibly be owed to Mr. Hubbard or the Church ... I have reached the conclusion that this application is both mischievous and misconceived and must be dismissed."

I had an absurd desire to turn round and stick my tongue out at the lugubrious bunch of Scientologists who had been sitting at the back of the court throughout the case. Instead, I did the dignified thing: I went out and got drunk.