Chapter 7

Scientologists and the Law II: The Johnson Smith Case

The nearest approach to a legal examination of the teaching, practice and consequences of the scientologists' movement took place during the trial of its action for libel against Mr Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Conservative MP for East Grinstead. It began on 5 November 1970 in the High Court before Mr Justice Browne and lasted thirty-two days.

Mr Johnson Smith, formerly a member of the BBC's Current Affairs Unit and a television interviewer and reporter, became a vice-chairman of the Conservative Party and (from 1960 to 1963) was PPS to the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Pensions. In a BBC Twenty-Four Hours programme in July 1968, interviewed after the Minister of Health had made his announcement banning all immigration by scientology students, Mr Johnson Smith told his interviewer that scientologists

direct themselves deliberately towards the weak, the unbalanced, the immature, the rootless and the mentally or emotionally unstable.

The interviewer then asked him if he had come across 'any alienation within families' brought about by scientology, and he replied that in fact this had been 'the disturbing trend of correspondence he had had, stretching back almost three years'. He added that Mr Peter Hordern, Tory MP for Horsham, had also 'detected this same theme'.

Mr Hordern was quoted at the beginning of the trial (by Mr Ronald Shulman, Counsel for the scientologists) as having said in a House of Commons adjournment debate that money was 'extracted' by the scientologists

from the weak, credulous, and mentally ill, and techniques used are in many cases harmful to the mental health of the community.

Accordingly Sir Elwyn Jones, QC, the ex-Attorney-General who was defending Mr Johnson Smith, pointed out on the first day of the trial that the case seemed likely to involve Parliamentary privilege and 'the long-standing principle that MPs cannot be challenged about matters raised in Parliament - only Parliament itself can probe the truth of what was said'. And the following day the Attorney-General then in office, Sir Peter Rawlinson, QC, came to the Court to submit that

an MP must be able to perform his duties without fear that his motive might be questioned by those outside Parliament, whatever their grievances. ... It is beyond challenge that an MP cannot be sued directly for what he has said in Parliament; but privilege goes further. In order to give effective protection there must be included that the conduct should not be reviewed or examined in any proceedings of any kind in any Court. In the present case the Court's enquiry is limited exclusively to what Mr Johnson Smith has said outside the House. ... If what is said in Parliament could be used in association with what is said outside Parliament, in subsequent Court proceedings, the effect would be to inhibit what was said in Parliament.

The scientologists were seeking to prove, by linking his Parliamentary with his extra-Parliamentary observations, that Mr Johnson Smith had been 'actuated by malice'. Mr Justice Browne ruled that he could not be questioned about the Parliamentary ones, and the case proceeded on that basis.

Under cross-examination by Sir Elwyn Jones, Mr David Gaiman duly disclosed some of the history of scientology. It used to subject 'prospective students' to a 'security' questionnaire running to 300 questions, of which the following are illuminating examples:

  1. Have you any secret you are afraid I will find out?
  2. Have you ever practised cannibalism?
  3. Deserted from military service?
  4. Had anything to do with pornography?
  5. Been a drug addict?
  6. Been involved in an abortion?
  7. Committed adultery?
  8. Committed bigamy?
  9. Practised homosexuality?
  10. Had intercourse with a member of your family?
  11. Practised sex with animals?
  12. Murdered anyone?
  13. Have you ever been a Communist?
  14. Been a newspaper reporter?
  15. Been a spy for the police?
  16. Are you afraid of the police?
  17. Done anything your mother would be ashamed to find out?
  18. Had any unkind thoughts about scientology?
But all this was dropped from the screening process in August 1968 - 'partly', said Mr Gaiman, 'as a result of public criticism of the check'. There seems to have been no intimation, in all this, that membership was now open to cannibals, pornographers, drug addicts, murderers, bigamists, or those who had thought unkindly about scientology, but it may have been found that pornographic cannibals, etc., were not the kind of people who sought membership. On the previous day Sir Elwyn Jones had told the jury that when Lord Balniel, in 1966, called for an enquiry into scientology, a directive went out from Ron Hubbard saying 'Get detectives on that lord's past to unearth the titbits. They are there.'

As it happened a search for titbits was at that time being conducted in East Grinstead by newspapermen who seemed convinced that titbits were there too. Mr Gaiman told the Court that there were often television cameras at the gates of Saint Hill Manor and 'one could pull reporters out of the shrubs at any time of the day or evening. A lot of things happened,' he said, 'which were not British - they were perhaps more in keeping with Germany in 1933. Anti-scientology feeling in East Grinstead began to resemble 'a pogrom'. Among the consequences of the Government's attitude to the movement were these:

Nevertheless the scientologists were able to call a number of credible witnesses as to the validity of their claim to 'free' the individual from something or other and give him a better life. Dr Edward Hamlyn, a Plymouth family doctor, for example, said he was so impressed with what he read about dianetics that he took a course at Saint Hill Manor in June 1969. Dianetics was a technology which gave, 'for the first time in human history', a '100 per cent guarantee of success in the treatment of migraine, asthma, lumbago, arthritis, and bed-wetting'. He and his wife, he said, were now both scientologists and were in partnership as general medical practitioners. As a doctor he had been 'trained on the assumption that the mind is part of the brain'. If one started with a falsehood like that, 'one would be in severe difficulties in the field of the mind, because the mind is not part of the brain'.

Mr William Benitez, an American citizen who said he had served many years in prison for possessing drugs and had started using marijuana when he was thirteen, said that scientology had broken him of an addiction to drugs which had lasted for nineteen years. He was 'founder of a nationwide organisation in the United States for drug addicts and the rehabilitation of criminals', and scientology was at the heart of it. 'I had never experienced anything like the impact made on me by the first two scientology books I read,' said Mr Benitez:

I learned about life and people for the first time. All of a sudden it was like being free, even though I was still in prison. In the scientology technology I found the ability to handle my problem.

Then came Mr William Hamling, Labour MP for Woolwich West. He heard about scientology when he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Mr Kenneth Robinson - he was 'lobbied' on the subject in the House of Commons at about the time when his Minister made the statement in the Commons. He decided to take a one-week scientology course in 'communications' to find out what it was all about - after he had ceased to be Mr Robinson's PPS. First he was 'audited' at Saint Hill Manor - and it helped him. He read some books on dianetics but none on scientology. During the course he was given a series of words - anger, pride, happiness, etc. - and was 'processed' to find out if there was any reaction from him to any of those words. If there was, 'it was gone into fully'. His E-meter test failed to reveal any 'engrams'. But he was himself a teacher of 'communications' and he judged the course from that standard. 'I found it first-rate,' he said in evidence; and the scientologists he had met had been normal, decent, intelligent people. Although he knew the libel action against Mr Johnson Smith was pending when he took the course, he did not take it with the object of giving evidence at the trial.

Sir Chandos Hoskyns-Abrahall, who was Lieutenant-Governor of Western Nigeria when he retired from the Colonial Service in 1955, told the Court that he began studying scientology in 1967 with a certain amount of scepticism. 'I thought at first', he said, 'that there might be something in it. I ended up convinced that there was everything in it.' He too, like Mr Benitez, had then learned about life and people for the first time (as a septuagenarian with a long career in public life).

Before calling Mr Geoffrey Johnson Smith as he opened the defence, Sir Elwyn Jones read out long extracts from the report of Mr (now Mr Justice) Kevin Anderson to the Government of the Australian State of Victoria. Sir Elwyn first had to overcome a submission by the scientologists' Counsel (and did so successfully) that this report, because it was highly prejudicial to their case, should not be admitted in evidence.

Then Mr Johnson Smith told the Court that, although the scientology organisation 'had a reputation for slapping writs on people who wrote or said anything they thought critical', he thought it would be cowardly to refuse to be interviewed on television about it, though he had felt hesitant and somewhat nervous. But he regarded it as very much his duty. 'This is a free country and I felt I should not be intimidated.' He had never suggested banning scientology in Britain, 'nor did I ever try to have the cult's East Grinstead headquarters closed'. When he was considering whether to press for an official enquiry into the practices of scientology, Lord Balniel had 'warned him to be careful that there was nothing in his past that he minded being revealed'.

Many people asked me again and again to urge the Minister of Health to take action against scientology. But it was difficult for the Minister to do anything. It was also difficult to know how to deal with people who were deeply distressed by its influence. A lot of people were calling for a complete ban, but one had to bear in mind the freedom of society.

One mother had complained to him that her son, aged twenty-four, had given up his job as an electronics engineer to take a L100 scientology course; and another that her daughter had left home because of scientology's influence and might be forced to sever her family connections. There were complaints about propaganda sent to the pupils at a private school, and of personal approaches to the staff and pupils at an establishment for maladjusted children.

Mr Ronald Shulman, for the scientologists, suggested that Mr Johnson Smith had taken part in a witch-hunt against them. This he denied. 'I never regarded it as part of my duty', he said, 'to go rushing round my constituency trying to stir things up, to drum up a situation involving this sect.'

'Did you ever go to Saint Hill Manor?'


'Why not?'

'There was no point in visiting it. I wasn't concerned with scientology as a whole, but merely with certain practices and techniques which disturbed me. You might just as well say I could pass a judgment on the Church of England by looking at Canterbury Cathedral.'

Later he said that in 1968 he had a letter from Mrs Helen Parselle, wife of the scientologists' legal adviser, which seemed to him to be 'offering a deal' after they had issued their libel writ. He took it to mean that if he presented a petition to Parliament on behalf of a scientologist they might drop the libel action. 'It was quite an improper suggestion. It was asking me to forget all the representations which had been made to me, and I couldn't do that.'

'Have you ever shown any remorse for the remarks you made in that television programme?' Mr Shulman asked him.

'I've never been given a chance to apologise,' replied Mr Johnson Smith, 'but in any case I stand by my actions during the years I was dealing with the scientologists and I stand by what I said in that interview.'

'Did it never enter your head that you might have hurt a number of sincere people?'

'I was aware that, unfortunately, people could get hurt. ... I am sorry if my statement on television caused any sorrow to ordinary people who were scientologists. But whether the responsibility for that lies with me or with L. Ron Hubbard is one of the things that will have to be decided.'

Mr Johnson Smith was cross-examined by Mr Shulman at great length but, it turned out, to little purpose. Did he hate scientology? No, nor did he consider it a laughing matter - he had never held it up to ridicule. It was not he who asked for the ban: he wanted a public enquiry.

Nevertheless both before and after his television comments on scientology he had received 'floods of letters accusing him of trying to stop freedom of religion' and an almost equal number supporting him - there were twenty- three for and twenty-one against. He had in fact made representations, in his capacity as an MP, on behalf of scientologists the same as any other constituent; but when Mr David Gaiman, who was a constituent, wrote to him at his private London address and asked for an interview after playing what must have been a large part in the decision to serve a writ on him, he thought that was 'rather odd behaviour'. Still, he saw Mr Gaiman and a party of scientologists in the House of Commons in 1970.

Mr Johnson Smith was aware, he said, that in the TV interview he was running the risk of a libel action. This was always a way of shutting people up. 'I knew a number of public people', he added, 'who were afraid of speaking up because of what had happened to others. ... The TV interviewer was not interested in scientology generally - he was talking about the ban and why the Minister of Health had imposed it. ... I did not dictate the course of the interview.'

Mr Johnson Smith, in the course of the cross-examination, was shown a great number of letters and other exhibits, including copies of Hansard and the script of his television interview; and after the reading of each one he was asked questions which were, to say the least, repetitive and could only produce answers he had given many times before. He was in the witness- box for six days, and the foregoing is a greatly condensed version of the evidence he gave.

Mrs Joan Rudell, the co-principal of an East Grinstead school for maladjusted children, said that a woman scientologist called at the school about a very retarded boy of sixteen. 'She insisted', said Mrs Rudell, 'that she knew how to treat this boy. She could do much more for him than we could. Then she became very argumentative, and I escorted her from the premises. It was obvious that, when the time came for the boy to leave school, he would not be able to make his way independently in the world.' He was physically malformed, partially paralysed and subject to occasional epileptic fits. He had since died. 'I later discovered', said Mrs Rudell, 'that this scientologist had written down the boy's name, and had asked him to go and see her so that she could help him.'

One or two of the defence witnesses gave evidence of a kind that could be called in aid by both sides. For example, a Portsmouth man, who once took a scientology course and had a history of mental illness and three periods of hospital treatment, said that he 'would not be happy to go back as a scientologist', but 'accepted that their treatment is invaluable so far as mental health is concerned'. He believed it had 'cured' his mentally sick daughter.

I am delighted with the progress she has made. But something has happened in scientology during the last two years which runs counter to Hubbard's writing and teachings before that.

In 1965 he saw an advertisement by a 'hypnotherapist', got in touch with the advertiser and found that it was a man he knew already. This man explained that he wasn't really a hypnotherapist - he was a scientologist. He 'didn't think anyone would know about scientology', so he called himself a hypnotherapist. The ailing daughter went to stay at this man's house for about a month, during which time (said the witness) the scientologist 'tried to lift her out of herself and give her an interest.' But then her parents lost touch with her for a time and eventually traced her to Saint Hill Manor. When they tried to see her they were ordered off the premises and 'two men with swagger sticks' escorted them off. They then received a letter from their daughter saying that she had 'disconnected' from them.

As this witness described how he then wrote a letter of protest to Hubbard, he broke down in the witness-box and for a time was unable to continue.

In January 1969 he had tried to kill himself. Doctors had said his daughter 'would never be a useful member of society' - she had been 'written off', said the witness, 'by psychiatry'. He seems to have found little to choose between orthodox medicine and scientology. Eventually he wrote to Mr Geoffrey Johnson Smith.

Less ambivalent was the story told by Mrs Jean Wilson, a Durham teacher. 'Before my husband became involved with scientology,' she said, 'he was witty, intelligent, gentle and considerate. Later he became very hard, offhand towards myself and the two children, rigid in his views and, finally, irrational.'

But for his involvement with scientology, she said, their marriage would have survived.

'He was always trying to get me to go to Saint Hill for "processing". But I had seen his character change so terribly as a result of scientology that I absolutely refused. I was frightened.'

He was now 'living in squalor', and had told her he was destitute. 'It turned my husband into a robot, and the way it took over our whole lives was frightening.'

Mr Kenneth Robinson, who as Minister for Health from 1964 until 1968 had denounced scientology as 'a potentially harmful cult', said in evidence that his view of it was based on the Kevin Anderson Report in Victoria and on confirmatory evidence in his own possession as a Minister. By 1967 he was 'receiving dozens of complaints' about scientology practices.

There was a nucleus of complaints which were convincing, to take seriously, and which had a bearing on health, particularly mental health. ... I had no personal animus against scientology. I made a statement about the ban because of my duty as Minister of Health with a responsibility for the public health of the country.

Mr Robinson was cross-examined at considerable length. He himself had issued a writ for libel against the scientologists, in respect of charges they had made against him in their publications (see page 68), a circumstance which made his appearance in this trial specially interesting.

Did he know that his own former Parliamentary Private Secretary, Mr William Hambling, had given evidence in this case in support of scientology? Yes, said Mr Robinson, he knew. He had no recollection of talking to Mr Hambling about scientology at any time, but he could say that Mr Hambling would not have had any access to the Departmental files on the scientology question. Did Mr Robinson know what the scientologists believed in? No, he replied, though he had read a 'voluminous amount of their literature'. He could remember the word 'Thetan', which cropped up from time to time; but he found it difficult to take all the scientologists' claims seriously.

He knew that they didn't like psychiatry, which he himself understood to be the healing of mental ills; and also that there were sometimes criticisms (from non-scientologists) of the psychiatric hospitals - it was he who, as Minister of Health, had set up the enquiry into Ely Hospital, where there had been violence to patients. He never regarded a hospital patient as 'written off' - it was not an expression that he used.

He had not to his knowledge met any scientologists. Had he ever taken the trouble to go to Saint Hill Manor? 'No, it didn't seem to me that a visit would add to my knowledge.' Scientology was not a public body - he couldn't 'just drop in'. He was a vice-president (it was made to seem almost like an admission) of the National Association for Mental Health. Yes, that Association was a member of the World Federation for Mental Health, but Mr Robinson declined to be drawn on the subject of the World Federation - which, at that time, also had a libel action against the scientologists pending.

Did he recall the statement made in the House of Commons by his successor as Minister, Mr Richard Crossman, about the need for an enquiry into scientology, which he himself seemed to have thought unnecessary? 'Yes, but when I was Minister I did not think there was any call for an enquiry - I had plenty of evidence which, coupled with the Anderson Report, convinced me that an enquiry was not necessary.' He agreed that there were many complaints about the neglect of mental disorders, about insufficient funds for the hospitals, etc. He had always been concerned, and not only as Minister of Health, to see them remedied -'I have always had an abiding interest in mental health.'

There were other witnesses both for and against Mr Johnson Smith, and some of those for the defence had poignant stories to tell - notably Mrs Henslow, the mother of the girl whose experience was first recounted in the House of Commons on 28 February 1967 (see page 38). The nature of other witnesses' evidence may be judged from their opinions and experiences as reported elsewhere in this book - for example, Mr Peter Hordern, MP, and Mr David Clark. And finally, on 17 December, Mr Justice Browne began his summing up to the jury.

He reminded them that the plaintiffs had strong feelings in the matter, that the trial involved the defendant's honour both as a man and as an MP, that it concerned the question of freedom of speech, that it was not a heresy trial, not about the efficacy of the convulsive therapy which the scientologists attacked, not about psychiatry, and not about the ban on scientology students entering this country. The jury were to 'put themselves in the position of the viewers who saw Mr Johnson Smith's television interview that night', said the judge; and they were to consider the broadcast as a whole, consisting as it did partly of fact and partly of comment and opinion. And the defendant had to prove that his statements of fact were substantially true while his expressions of opinion amounted to 'fair comment'.

His Lordship then reviewed all the evidence, with some indication in the case of each witness as to his own view of its probative value, carefully prefaced each time with the judicial 'You may think that ...'. In a striking passage he referred to the evidence of Mrs Henslow, the mother of Karen Henslow who had fallen in love with a Mr Murray Youdell, a scientologist (see page 39). 'You may wonder', he said, 'what happened to Mr Youdell. Apparently he had not been near the Henslow family since the autumn of 1966, when he went off ostensibly to buy a wedding ring for Karen. You may think Mrs Henslow picked up all the stones thrown at her in the witness box, and threw them back with equal force.' His Lordship referred to the love letters that Karen had written to Mr Youdell while she herself was under treatment in a mental hospital - letters which, he said, were 'quite heartbreaking'. He added: 'You may think it is absolutely disgraceful that these letters should have got into the hands of the scientologists, or been used in this case. But however much you may disapprove, you have to give those letters the weight that you feel right.'

With such comments on the mass of evidence that they had to consider, the jury retired on Monday afternoon, 21 December, to spend an hour and forty minutes considering their verdict - with a number of specific questions to answer. The first was this:

Were any of the words spoken by the defendant in his broadcast defamatory of the plaintiffs?

And the jury's answer to that was No. If it had been Yes, they would have been required to say whether the words spoken as to matters of fact came from Hansard, and whether such words as did not come from Hansard were nevertheless true. Gratuitously, and as if for good measure, they answered Yes to both of those also. Moreover if they had thought the words defamatory they would have been expected to say whether, even so, they thought them true; and they took the opportunity to say Yes to that. They found that the words were published 'in good faith and without malice', and finally that they were 'fair comment' not only on the Hansard extracts but also on the other facts they had found to be true. It was a devastating verdict; and on the same evening it was announced by Mr David Gaiman, for the scientologists, that there would be no appeal against it. They were ordered to pay the entire costs of the action, which were 'unofficially estimated' (according to The Times of 22 November 1970) at L70,000. And they stood condemned by a jury, in Mr Johnson Smith's carefully chosen words, of 'directing themselves deliberately towards the weak, the unbalanced, the immature, the rootless and the mentally and emotionally unstable'.

L70,000 was a figure that may have seemed less daunting to the scientologists then it would to many litigants. For while the litigation was actually in progress the National Association for Mental Health received from Saint Hill Manor an extraordinary offer. By way of resolving 'the current financial crisis in the affairs of the NAMH', the scientologists would, by deed of covenant, subscribe L20,000 a year to the Association for seven years - a total of L140,000. They pointed out that this sum, by recovery of income tax on it at the standard rate, would be almost doubled during the seven-year period of the covenant; but its acceptance would involve, as a condition, the discontinuance of NAMH support for a number of widely used medical treatments for mental disorder (including ECT and insulin shock treatment), that the NAMH should resign its membership of the World Federation for Mental Health, and that it should give its support to a proposed 'Bill of Rights' for mental patients, the nature and terms of which you can guess from what appears on page 25. The NAMH was to 'make no public announcement of any sort' about accepting this potential fortune.

The offer was rejected. Shortly afterwards the NAMH received a further letter enclosing the proof of an article that the scientologists proposed to publish on the subject of nineteen alleged NAMH shortcomings and malpractices; among the latter being the sad story of a house for mentally confused old ladies in which the luckless residents were punished for misbehaviour by being made to scrub floors. The grounds of this sinister place were patrolled (the article went on) by men with shotguns; though it did not say specifically that their task was to shoot down any of the aged occupants caught running away.

Which, perhaps, supplies the best possible note on which to conclude the strangest chapter in a story that uniquely combines total incredibility with the nearest one can get to total truth.

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