Jonny Jacobsen: A Q&A with Europe's Premier Scientology Blogger
Last month, when a highly complex fraud trial was completing its appeal phase in France -- which considers Scientology a business scam, not a religion -- there was only one place we went for the latest information.
In the past, we've described Jonny Jacobsen's blog, Infinite Complacency, as "murderously rigorous," and we meant it. A blogger's blogger, Jacobsen is a British-trained journalist who lives in France and has relentlessly, and with laser focus, written about some of the most complex legal developments in the world of Scientology watching.
This week, Infinite Complacency celebrated its third anniversary, and Jacobsen reflected on being one of the first to reveal abuse of church executives at Scientology's California international base, and to watch the fraud trial unfold in Paris. And he jumped at the offer when we asked him to give us some perspective on what changes he's seen in this field of scribbling about the church since 2009...
Over the past three years, what would you say were the five biggest developments in the world of watching Scientology?
I think I mentioned most of them in my anniversary post, but in no special order:
-- the French fraud conviction of Scientology as an organisation
-- Senator Nick Xenophon's ground-breaking denunciation of Scientology's excesses in his speech to the Australian Senate
-- the explosion of coverage at the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times)
-- the Debbie Cook debacle and the way her court testimony went around the world
--the ongoing lawsuits by the Headleys and Laura DeCrescenzo
The French conviction is important not just because Scientology as an organisation was convicted of fraud - and not just a few individuals - but because it looks likely to act as a template for other prosecutions in other countries. It managed, for the most part, to avoid getting bogged down in sticky questions like the mind control debate and concentrated on the basic criminal behaviour: the relentless hard sell based on false promises; the deception embodied in Scientology's false claims of scientific credentials, such as with the personality test.
Senator Xenophon's intervention was important because it was well-stocked with good information from former members and was careful to avoid attacking the movement's belief system, except where it was implicated in the abuses. The cascade of setbacks that Scientology has suffered Down Under can virtually all be traced back to the senator's speech.
The Times' coverage - from the initial three-part investigation into violence at Int Base in the summer of 2009, to its more recent breakdown of Scientology's relentless hard-sell tactics - has been thorough, meticulous and impressive in its scale. I have no doubt the fact that they committed to an extended campaign encouraged other sources to come forward. They took the most important issues - the violence and abuse - into the mainstream, encouraging other news organisations to follow suit.
The Debbie Cook affair has become a real debacle for the Miscavige regime. I think it is a perfect illustration too of the way the Independent movement has learned how to out-manoeuvre corporate Scientology. The whole episode reminds me of that section at Andreas Heldal-Lund's Operation Clambake called Operation Foot-Bullet, which lists the various occasions on which the movement has managed to shoot itself in the foot.
First, they alienated one of their most dedicated members, then when she spoke out they tried to harass and silence her by dragging her into court - which achieved the exact opposite. They gave her a platform to detail the abuses she had suffered and witnessed, testimony so compelling it was even picked up by the normally timid British press.
Finally, I think the lawsuits launched by Marc and Claire Headley and Laura DeCrescenzo are still very significant. In a sense, Scientology cannot win there: a victory for the plaintiffs would be a massive indictment of the movement's practices right at the top of the movement, its appalling treatment of its most dedicated members. But if the lawsuits fail, it will only increase pressure for the authorities to do something about the movement's seeming impunity.
I wouldn't want to guess which way any of them will go. But win or lose, the plaintiffs and their lawyers helped get crucial issues out in the open. Olivier Morice, the lawyer who represented one of the plaintiffs in the Paris trial described that case as a time bomb that had been waiting to explode under the movement for years: you could say much the same thing about these three lawsuits. Kudos to all three of them for sticking it out this far.
What's the development of the European press been like since 2009 for covering Scientology? Are news organizations there getting braver?
The fact that Britain's two biggest-selling dailies The Sun and The Daily Mail covered Debbie Cook's testimony was significant, I thought. The Sun did give coverage to Marc Headley's book Blown for Good when it came out, but usually these papers focus on the weirdness quotient or the celebrity angle without tackling anything more difficult. Court coverage of course is legally safer than more ambitious investigative work, but it is still important exposure.
In France, coverage of Scientology is far more hostile, but that just reflects the political consensus here. France's About-Picard law allowing for the possibility of banning a cult-like organisation got all-party support. Most people here see Scientology as a scam, and a rather nasty one at that. Colleagues in Belgium and Germany tell me the coverage is along similar lines there. Worldwide, I would still say that the best media coverage of Scientology is in the U.S. - but the Aussies are coming up fast on the inside.
You've done comprehensive coverage of incredibly complex lawsuits over the years. Is this kind of hard work starting to penetrate to a larger audience over time?
I just checked my stats at sitemeter.com. In three years and 123 posts, I've managed to attract 58 followers and have an average daily hit rate of 58. So I think Perez Hilton can sleep easy.
I originally saw Infinite Complacency as a repository of material for when I returned to my book project, but over time it's become an end in itself. I sometimes wonder if I am not over-egging the cake with the detail I go into in some cases, particularly the French trial. On balance though, I think it's worth it: one of the main advantages of a blog is you can do this kind of in-depth coverage, something that wouldn't be possible in a mainstream, commercial operation.
But while I may have few readers, they are motivated. Various contacts have told me that they have passed my articles on to journalists, politicians even members of the clergy in a bid to educate them. That encourages me to hope that my output has a wider circulation than is measured in raw site stats - and that it's getting to the right audience. In writing any given article I tried to strike a balance between addressing my fellow nerds - some of whom know more than I do about a given case - and more general readers who want to be educated on a specific aspect of Scientology.
I hope this material serves as a database for other researchers, journalists and academics, so they can make the connections between one case and another; so they can see that the same abuses are happening in different countries around the world. The whole point of the blog is that the abuse in Scientology is systemic.
The trouble with being a one-man operation - subbing your own copy is never a good idea - is that quite apart from getting the details right, it's easy to lose sight of the big picture. Fortunately, the feedback I have had from readers has convinced me that I'm not completely wasting my time.
Could you rank in order, which do you predict are going to be the five or six toughest countries in Europe for Scientology over the next few years?
I'm not sure it's important which country is giving them the hardest time. In Russia for example, their basic rights are systematically trampled on and I don't condone that for a moment. What is more interesting, I think, is what is happening in the western democracies, because really, one way of looking at the problem of cults is seeing it as a problem of the open society and its enemies.
In this respect, Australia is going about it the right way: Scientology looks likely to lose the tax breaks its charitable status has afforded it when the government introduces a public benefit test that the movement cannot possibly meet. The Fair Work Ombudsman has put them on notice that they cannot go on exploiting their workers; and the courts seem ready to intervene when there is a case they think needs prosecuting.
Compare that with the United States where, while there have been a number of significant developments, there seems to be a lack of coordination, a disjointedness about the way the situation is evolving. My jaw dropped when I read your report on the FBI investigation: I could not believe they were planning to raid Scientology's executive HQ. They don't appear to have learned anything from the slaughter at Waco. Perhaps then, it is as well that someone shut down their investigation. I agree with Mike Rinder's comments in your piece that the authorities would be better going through the courts - though I think they could aim a little higher than his suggested offence, obstruction of justice. With all the material already in the public domain, all the testimony from former members, I don't think you need raids on the scale of those carried out in the 1970s.
The key thing missing in the States is the political will: you need a politician like Australia's Senator Xenophon who has acted as a catalyst for change in his country.
In France, while the conviction of Scientology was significant and more cases may come to trial, I am concerned about their willingness to talk in terms of banning Scientology. I think it would be a serious mistake. You can't reform a movement by driving it underground: you just make martyrs of them.
In Belgium and Germany there are criminal cases in the pipeline, which could prove to be major blows to the movement there; and David Love in Canada is doing interesting work exposing the abuses inside Narconon, the drug rehab operation run using Hubbard's scientifically untested and potentially dangerous methods. These are all developments I hope to cover in the future.
What's the toughest thing for you in maintaining the blog? Is it the time management, the access to sources, the writing. What is it?
It is difficult finding the time to write the blog: I have a paid job and a family - a life in other words. But I wouldn't do this if I didn't get a lot of satisfaction out of it. I try to do more in-depth reporting and analysis rather than breaking news - because I need to focus on what commercial operations don't always have time to do. That's the beauty of a blog.
On the other hand, I wish I had the time and resources to make another research trip to the U.S., meet contacts and gather stories: my last one dates back to 2007.
I've given up trying to compete with mainstream news sources, since I cannot match their resources or even devote the time required for proper investigative work. The opening sections of Infinite Complacency, (Violence and Abuse in the Sea Org) took more than two years of work to put together and was quickly outstripped by the Times investigation. So now my work is more document based: I follow the lawsuits, try to break down the legal issues, and chase up official reports, speeches to parliament.
Anything else you want to tell us about how things have changed in the past three years in Scientology or the coverage of it?
One thing I have found interesting is the the way the Independent Scientology movement has grown in confidence, coalescing around Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder. They are well organised, proactive and perfectly happy to embarrass the Miscavige regime with a steady stream of leaks. Rathbun, Rinder - and no doubt some of the others - are extremely well informed and know how to hit the Miscavige regime where it hurts. The movement also provides a valuable support network for those who are outraged about the current abuses but are unwilling to give up their belief in the ideals of Scientology.
I may not see eye to eye with them on certain issues - they don't want to accept that the abuse started with Scientology's founder, Hubbard, not Miscavige - but if I don't write much about them, it is mainly because they are perfectly capable of getting their message out themselves. I certainly don't underestimate the threat they pose to the Miscavige regime.
These last three years I've made some really interesting contacts and I hope one day to meet up with some of them. For the moment however, I'm happy to just keep plodding away, taking it one story at a time - with an occasional break for caek! :-)
********** Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories, which tend to come out each and every morning at 8 am, but can suddenly appear at any time of the day. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories. As for our regular features, on Thursdays we do a roundup of world press, on Fridays we visit L. Ron Hubbard on the yacht Apollo circa 1969-1971, on Saturdays we celebrate the week's best comments, and on Sundays we publish Scientology's wacky and tacky advertising mailers that people send us.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and is now being sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.