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Sky pulls Scientology show because of Northern Ireland libel laws

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 20/04/2015

John Travolta, pictured with his wife Kelly
John Travolta, pictured with his wife Kelly
Tom Cruise

A hard-hitting Scientology documentary faces the axe from UK TV screens because of Northern Ireland's archaic libel laws.

Controversial HBO expose Going Clear makes allegations of abusive practices at the religion's US headquarters.

It was due to air in the UK earlier this month to coincide with its American release.

But it has emerged the programme was pulled by Sky because of fears it could face legal action under our stricter libel legislation.

The Defamation Act, which came into force in the UK last year, does not apply in Northern Ireland after being blocked by Stormont.

It means Sky could be exposed to libel claims from the Church of Scientology if the documentary airs here.

Sky described its decision not to show the programme as a delay rather than a cancellation, but did not deny it was taken for legal reasons.

The Church of Scientology is an organisation devoted to the practice and promotion of Scientology, a body of beliefs and related practices created by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard.

It teaches that people are immortal beings who have forgotten their true nature.

Going Clear, directed by Alex Gibney, claims to be an account of the church's origins and its development into an international organisation with billions of dollars in global property holdings.

But interviews with eight former scientologists about their experiences inside the church allege darker practices.

Some claim they have been physically harassed and publicly vilified for speaking out.

The documentary also explores the church's finances and its relationships with celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

From its Los Angeles HQ, the church denounced the film as a "one-sided, bigoted propaganda built on falsehoods" and informed by former members, whom it calls "misfits".

The decision to pull the documentary is one of the first visible effects of Stormont's failure to implement the Defamation Act.

Under that law, claimants have to show they have suffered "serious harm" before suing.

However, the reforms do not apply in Northern Ireland after being blocked by Stormont.

This poses a problem for Sky, which is unable to differentiate its signal between regions.

Thus the programme could be exposed to libel action in Northern Ireland, even if it is protected by the Defamation Act in England and Wales.

The church said: "The Church of Scientology will be entitled to seek the protection of both UK and Irish libel laws in the event that any false or defamatory content in this film is broadcast within these jurisdictions."

Belfast libel lawyer Paul Tweed, who represents David Miscavige, the church's current leader, said any individual was entitled to protect their reputation against false allegations.

"If Sky broadcast in Northern Ireland, they are accountable under the law as it stands," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"They have to be absolutely certain that what they are broadcasting is not defamatory."

Mr Tweed said that, as yet, he had not put Sky on notice.

He added that Northern Ireland's unreformed libel law is, he believes, the world's fairest: "Our law is no more onerous than the law in the Republic of Ireland or the law in Scotland."

A spokesman for broadcasters Sky said: "At present, Sky's transmission date for Going Clear has not been confirmed."

Belfast Telegraph

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