Focus: Why Channel 4 is haunted by Scientology
The sect has hired a private eye to follow the makers of a documentary film who, it claims, are out to destroy it
Chris Blackhurst writes regular columns for The Independent, i and The Independent on Sunday, and conducts weekly interviews for London Live TV. Blackhurst was City Editor of the Evening Standard for nine years, before becoming Editor of The Independent for two years. He was then promoted to Group Content Director, and in September 2014 he took on the multi-media business role. He’s won numerous awards for his journalism.
Sunday 09 November 1997
A few days ago, her idyll was shattered when two American men turned up at the small, isolated stables. Purporting to be her friends, they asked the stable-owner if she knew where Ms Robinson was. The woman became suspicious and they left. The same day, a card was pushed through Ms Robinson's letterbox. It came from someone called Eugene Ingram, of Ingram Investigations, California, and said he was investigating a case of attempted extortion. Would she call him?
Ms Robinson knows all about Mr Ingram. For weeks this private detective and his colleagues have been keeping watch on her. Her car has been followed, her friends have been approached. Her colleagues have received visits and calls from Mr Ingram at their homes. And all because Ms Robinson is the director of a forthcoming Secret Lives programme for Channel 4 about the founding father of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard - a man who died 11 years ago.
Mr Ingram has been hired by the Church of Scientology to investigate the programme and its makers. To that end, Mr Ingram, who regularly works for the Church, has tailed Ms Robinson and her colleagues from 3BM, the production company, across America and, more recently, around the Home Counties.
The aim of Mr Ingram and his client is to prove that the programme is the result of a conspiracy by people in America to extort cash from the church. Pay us, so the Scientologists' theory goes, and we will stop going to the media with stories harmful to your religion. Ms Robinson, who has produced negative reports before on Scientology, must, they feel, be more than a reporter going about her job, and be wrapped up in some greater web of intrigue.
Talk to the church and it becomes obvious that its senior members believe the plot ranges far and wide. Channel 4, they suspect, may also be involved. Senior church officials have visited Channel 4's offices, demanding to meet Michael Jackson, the station controller. Mr Jackson and his staff have been deluged with phone calls and letters from hundreds of members, including John Travolta, the actor, imploring them to stop persecuting the church. Several of the calls and letters make reference to Germany where the authorities are attempting to suppress Scientology.
When the Channel 4 programme appears, on 19 November, the howls of rage - and the church's deepening sense of paranoia - will only intensify.
FORRY ACKERMAN knew it was time to quit Scientology when Nibbs Hubbard remembered what it was like to be a clam on a beach. According to the teaching of Nibbs's father, L Ron, we are all inhabited by immortal souls, or thetans in Scientology terminology. We die, but our thetans live on. As a result, claimed L Ron, it is possible to remember our past lives. In Nibbs's case that meant going right back to the beginning, as a clam on the foreshore.
Listening to Nibbs's account, Mr Ackerman, until then L Ron's literary agent, had enough. "Well, when it got back to the individual who was a clam, lying on a primatial seashore, with a grain of sand irritating a pearl inside it, I decided that was as far back as I wanted to go, and I just departed from Scientology altogether," he says in the Secret Lives programme.
Mr Ackerman's loss of faith is portrayed as one of a series of blows to the Hubbard legend. Nibbs, relates Jim Dincalci, L Ron's personal medical officer, only remembered what it was like to be a clam after his father pumped him with amphetamine. Similarly, the defining moment in L Ron's life, suggests the programme, was also drug-induced. Hubbard always claimed that in 1938 an event took place that shaped his entire life and laid the foundation for what later became Scientology. Mr Ackerman says Hubbard told him how he died on the operating table, rose in spirit form, and looked at the body he had previously inhabited. "He shrugged the shoulders he didn't have any more, and he thought: 'Well, where do we go from here?' Off in the distance he saw a great ornate gate, which looked kind of interesting to him, so he walked over to it, and the gate just opened without any human assistance. He floated through and on the other side he saw an intellectual smorgasbord of everything that had puzzled the mind of man - you know, how did it begin, what is God's purpose, where do we go from here, are there past lives, are there future lives?"
The dead L Ron was absorbing this information like a sponge when a voice said: "He is not ready," and he returned to life. "I don't know how you die and the next minute you're bounding off an operating table," says Mr Ackerman.
The fruit of this fantastic encounter was Excalibur or the Dark Sword, the most secret text of Scientology. Hubbard said he rushed off and committed the beyond-the-grave "experience" to paper. Unfortunately, says Mr Ackerman, it was not true: Hubbard never died, as he claimed. Excalibur was based on a dream he had when under the influence of laughing gas while having two teeth removed.
Tellingly, many of the blows to Hubbard are delivered on camera by people who knew the man. Hubbard said that while serving at sea in the Second World War he had been blinded and crippled. But inspired by the same insights he'd had while "dead" on the operating table, he had been able to cure himself. By 1948, said Hubbard, he was able to pass a 100 per cent combat physical. Not so. His war record carries no mention of him being wounded in action. Instead, he was invalided out because of a stomach ulcer. As for blindness, the nearest he came was conjunctivitis and short-sightedness. And so it goes on.
The programme is not all bad for Hubbard. He may come across as a fraud who was driven by financial gain and power, and developed a religion in which its followers pay for advancement, but he was clearly an inspirational, hypnotic figure, possessed of tremendous energy and certainty which he was able to transmit to others. At the core of his teaching was a form of psychotherapy which he called Dianetics, the belief that our minds store the memory of every unpleasant thing that has ever happened to us. By a series of exercises, all this nastiness can be erased, making us cleaner, happier, freer, human beings.
BUT there are more controversial aspects to Hubbard's creed. Many Scientologists are put into different categories, called "lower conditions of existence", such as "liability", "doubt" or "treason". To escape, penances must be made - for example, from "liability", the delivering of a blow to Scientology's enemies.
As for being on the wrong end of bad press, Hubbard exhorted his flock in his Manual of Justice to "hire a private detective to investigate the writer, not the magazine, and get any criminal or Communist background the man has". He added: "When we need somebody haunted, we investigate ... when we investigate we do so noisily, always."
On 10 July this year, Jill Robinson arrived in Los Angeles to begin research. Within days of her arrival, 3BM was receiving messages from the church's headquarters saying they knew she was in LA. When she left her hotel room at 5am to go to Phoenix the man next door came out of his room at exactly the same time.
Ms Robinson's brother works in the US. When she dropped by his house, the phone went: it was the Church of Scientology, asking for Jill. When she went to a friend's dinner party, a woman knocked at the door at 10.30 at night saying she needed water for her car radiator. Robinson did not go to the door but she could hear the woman's voice: she claims it was that of the guide who had led a group of visitors, including Ms Robinson, around the LA museum dedicated to Hubbard's life. Her friend gave the woman the water but could see no sign of a car. Robinson believes there wasn't one at all. "It was their way of saying: 'We're here, we know you're there'," she said.
Ms Robinson returned to London and asked for the church's co-operation in the making of the film, for access to members of the organisation who knew L Ron, to his relatives, and to the archive of his life. Ms Robinson and her producer, Simon Berthon, maintain that for weeks all they received was silence.
On Ms Robinson's filming trip to the US in August, the action hotted up. By some means, someone had obtained her shooting schedule: everywhere the film crew went, there were cars tailing them. The surveillance was coupled with calls in the middle of the night to the rooms of the 3BM crew.
On one occasion, in Denver, Ms Robinson and her team took a wrong turning and ended up in an industrial wasteland. The car behind them also took the wrong turning and ended up in the same desolate patch.
In San Francisco, her cameraman challenged the driver of a car watching them filming. He hid his face and sped off. In Florida, she and her crew went to a mall to do some shopping. They stopped a Volvo and asked the driver why he was following them. He said he was from New York and there were three of them on the job, getting paid to follow her around.
Back in England, Ms Robinson's fears intensified. While she was editing the film, her neighbour in Kent spotted a man loitering outside her house and called the police. He had not committed any offence and they let him go. His reason for being there was unconvincing. He did, however, tell police he was a Scientologist.
In all, Ms Robinson, Mr Berthon, the associate producer, the cameraman, the sound recordist, the picture editor, the assistant cameraman, even the composer of the music, have had visits from Mr Ingram and his colleagues. Calls to Mr Ingram's office in California were not returned. But Elliot Abelson, an LA attorney, did call. He said he retained Mr Ingram on behalf of the Church of Scientology to investigate a conspiracy to extort money from the church. "Mr Ingram searches for the facts and does it lawfully," said Mr Abelson, "He will continue to do it and will continue to get to the facts."
Mike Rinder is the director of Special Affairs for the Church of Scientology International. He said that behind Ms Robinson's sources "were repeated threats against the church and demands for payments of tens of millions of dollars". Channel 4, alleged Mr Rinder, had missed the real Hubbard story - of his "solutions to the social ills of drugs, illiteracy and crime" and the "more than 40 million who have been touched by his non- religious moral code; and the many millions who hold his work to be the cornerstone of their lives."
Documentary evidence about Hubbard, said Mr Rinder, had been provided to 3BM and Channel 4. It was not true, he maintained, that the church had refused to co-operate - quite the contrary. The programme-makers had ignored the church's offers of access.
Alan Hayling, the programme's commissioning editor, said that when the church did suggest co-operation, it wanted to share editorial control, something that was out of the question. He condemned the investigation into the programme as "deplorable".
By the time it is shown, the Scientologists will be in full cry - but L Ron will not be with them. On the programme, Robert Vaughn Young, Hubbard's former personal press officer, recalls how "Dying suddenly made him very mortal, and the last thing we could have is for Hubbard to be mortal. So a story had to be designed, and the story is that he went off to research the next level. And what's amazing is how the Scientologists bought this - without any questioning , they bought it."
Channel 4 has not experienced anything yet.
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