Not since “The Satanic Verses” has a book caused so much controversy within organized religion.
But then again, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief,” is no ordinary book.
In fact, author Lawrence Wright’s less-than-complimentary look at Scientology has proved so controversial that the book’s UK publisher, Transworld, has cancelled its publication in the face of legal threats.
(American publisher Knopf still plans to publish the “Going Clear” January 17, with a reported print run of 150,000 copies.)
The book explores the history of Scientology, through stories about its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, as well as celebrity Scientologists like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Among other details, it claims that the church has “virtually imprisoned some of its members, threatening blackmail if they try to leave, and that its current leader, David Miscavige, has physically abused some of his underlings,” according to a recent piece on the book in The New York Times.
The book is based on a 2011 New Yorker article, “The Apostate,” which Wright wrote after interviewing screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, who resigned from the organization.
“The famously litigious Church of Scientology,” as well as celebrities belonging to the church sent “innumerable threatening letters” to Wright and his publishers, according to the Times.
It was, apparently, enough to persuade Transworld to back away from publishing the book in the UK, where it is easier to sue for libel than in the US.
“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,” Transworld’s publicity director, Patsy Irwin, said in a statement, according to the UK’s Telegraph.
The Church of Scientology says it attempted many times to reach out to Wright and his publisher.
“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,’” church spokesperson Karin Pouw said in a statement. “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.”
We take no sides in the controversy over Scientology, but we are appalled at Transworld’s decision not to publish “Going Clear.” Literature is not, and has never been, about playing it safe. From the beginning of time, books have made bold claims. For a publisher in the 21st century to be bullied out of publishing this book is a shame.
Ultimately, the decision not to publish “Going Clear” in the UK says more about that country’s libel laws than about the book itself. Considered overly punitive and archaic, British libel laws have long been the subject of censure by writers and free speech advocates.
“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,” Mike Harris, head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship, told the Telegraph. “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.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.