Whenever I give lectures on my book on censorship – Whaddya mean you haven’t read it? Buy it here at a recession-beating price – I discuss the great issues of the wealthy to silence critics, the conflict between religion and freedom of thought and the determination of dictators to persecute dissenters. These themes have animated great philosophers. None more so, I continue, than Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, who managed to get them all into one cartoon.

In a 2005, they broadcast an episode entitled Trapped in the Closet. The little boy Stan goes to one of the Scientologists’ personality testing centres. His “Thetan” levels are so high the Scientologists decide he must be the reincarnation of L Ron Hubbard, that herder of credulous souls who founded the sci-fi cult in the 1950s.

South Park’s writers have a lot of fun leaking the religion’s secrets. They explain that long, long ago, the evil alien emperor Xenu fills DC10s with people who were excess to his glactic empire’s requirements – quite how he got DC10s is not explained. He crashes them into the earth’s volcanoes. Once they were safely deposited in Vesuvius, Mount Etna and suchlike, Xenu nukes them. The souls of the unquiet dead now inhabit all of us. If you are fool enough to fall in with Scientologists, you will pay thousands of pounds to learn about the dastardly Xenu, then thousands more to “clear” the ill effects of being hit by an H-bomb.

Anyway, celebrity Scientologists John Travolta and Tom Cruise join the crowd on Stan’s lawn in South Park that has gathered to worship the messiah. When Stan tells Cruise he does not think he’s as good an actor as Leonardo DiCaprio or the guy who played Napoleon Dynamite but is “OK, I guess”, the despairing Cruise buries his face in his hands. “I’m nothing,” he says. “I’m a failure in the eyes of the Prophet!”

Cruise runs into Stan’s wardrobe and locks himself in, allowing assorted characters to shout “Tom Cruise come out of the closet!” for the rest of the show.

In the final scene, Stan refuses to become the Scientologists’ new guru because he wants no part of a “big fat global scam”. Outraged Scientologists bellow that they will sue him. Cruise comes out of the closet and ups the ante. In an in-joke I doubt not one American viewer in 10,000 got, Cruise cries.

So you’re NOT the prophet huh?! You made me look stupid! I’m gonna sue you too!”
Stan Well fine! Go ahead and sue me!
Crusie I will! I’ll sue you in England!

The joke, as many publishers have learned to their cost, was that anyone could be sued in England, even if they published or broadcast mainly in America. Once here they would find that the law was biased against the defendant, and the costs were fantastically high.

As it turned out, the joke was on us. When a British satellite television channel ran the series, it showed every episode of South Park apart from Trapped in the Closet in case Cruise did sue in England. (I suppose I must add, what with England being the way it is, that when I repeat the line “Tom Cruise come out of the closet” I do not intend to suggest that he is now or ever has been gay. I am just quoting a gag.)

Then again, the Scientologists could have sued. Like all fanatical religions, they want to stop criticism that might wake the faithful from their trances. The English law is happy to oblige them. Transworld was going to publish Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by, Lawrence Wright, a serious and respected author, who is on the staff of the New Yorker, and has a cupboard full of awards. He has investigated Scientology for years. As you can see from this New Yorker essay on the disillusionment of the Hollywood screenwriter Paul Haggis felt at the end of his time with the cult, Wright conducts meticulous research and explains his findings clearly.

When timid liberals tell me we should treat religion with politeness and “respect,” I reply that, although there is much to be said for politeness and we all tell white lies, religion is too important to handle with kid gloves. Religious and political ideologies demand the widest powers over the citizen. They must expect robust criticism.

In other words, and to put it rather pompously, there was a public interest in publishing Going Clear; and good grounds for getting in out of the closet. The threat of a libel action was too much for the publishers to bear, however. No one can predict in advance how much a book will make. But I guess that Transworld would have been more than happy if they had collected £30,000 from a serious piece of contemporary non-fiction. A libel case at the High Court would risk £200,000, £300,000 maybe a £1,000,000. Like so many others, Transworld could not afford to defend the truth of what it wrote. The “lawfare” of the Scientologists had closed debate. You can find Trapped in the Closet on the Web. You will be able to order Going Clear via Amazon in America. But as I argue in You Can’t Read This Book, the fact that prohibited material is available somewhere is not really the point. The knowledge that a special interest can punish it in your country enhances its power and stops local campaigners in their tracks.

I do not wish to appear grudging. Politicians from all parties have agreed to reform the skewed libel law, and they deserve credit for that. But they have come up with a sorry measure. There is no proper public interest defence. Corporations can still sue, even though corporations are not people. Contrary to the best principles of the Common Law, the burden of proof will remain on the defendant. Worst of all, Parliament is not tackling the fantastic costs of libel, which make it a rich man’s law.

So here we are ladies and gentleman, at the start of the 21st century, in the middle of what optimists believe is an unprecedented age of freedom, and English publishers still cannot publish books publishers all over the world can sell, and cultists and plutorcrats can still use our courts to impose controls on the essential arguments of a free society.

Tags: Freedom of speech, Hollywood, Law, Religion