Religion is `where the money is'

 

Reportedly, John Travolta and a number of his Church of Scientology friends wrote to Channel 4 chief, Michael Jackson, urging him not to broadcast this week's Secret Lives, which focused on Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard. "I'd like to start a religion - that's where the money is," Hubbard said in the late 1940s. So he did . . . if a hotch-potch of sci-fi and conveniently twisted Freud can reasonably be described as a religion.

All lives have secrets, of course. But Scientologists, it seems, have secret past lives best uncovered by giving loads of loot to their church. Ron's son Nibs, for instance, once recalled a past life as a clam in the primordial ooze. Nibs, whatever about his life as a clam, was gay while human. In Ron's world being gay was like being black at a KKK convention. Nibs, whose Dad had turned him on to amphetamine, finally committed suicide. But thousands of other devotees didn't give up their lives - they just gave up their money.

And that was the core of the criticism against Ron, a sci-fi writer turned self-proclaimed messiah. He was, this documentary suggested, as so many religious and cult leaders have always been, in it primarily for the money and the perks. Certainly, he thought big. At one stage he attempted to take over a country. Naturally enough, seeing as he had had a past life as Cecil Rhodes, he decided to annex Rhodesia. But Ian Smith (like various other ruling politicians) gave him the bum's rush and Ron took to the high seas.

Afloat, Ron's captain was Hana Eltringham. Hana was a natural choice seeing as, in a past life, she had flown spacecraft. (Well, for the job in question, it looks better on a CV than "clam".) Most of the rest of Ron's shipmates were 13, 14 and 15year-old girls. There were younger children too, among them four-year-old Derek Greene, who once chewed a telex. Ron was not impressed with Derek's telex-chewing, so he had him locked in a small, closed metal container for two days and two nights.

It was for the child's own good, you understand. "It's going to take a lot more ethics and a lot more punishment than anyone can easily withstand to get the world back in shape," Ron told his followers. Oh, the rigours of the messianic life with its dreadful flotsam of unworthy devotees! Anyway, Ron's followers swallowed it all. "He had a magical, magnetic, hypnotising effect on us," said a former shipmate. He must have had because the depth of gullibility required to sustain Ron was unfathomable.

So, how did he do it? On this crucial point Secret Lives was out of its depth. Clearly, Ron was seldom economical with his lies. They were almost always big ones - real whoppers, flame-grilled with cheese 'n' pickle - and that seems to be a vital part of the trick. Mind you, from an early age, Ron put in the groundwork for his lies: he invented a wealthy, adventure-filled childhood for himself; he told of a visit to the Himalayas and of fighting an octopus; he claimed to have cured his own wartime blindness. All porkies, all nonsense . . .

Still, his influence has been phenomenal. For a brief period in the early 1950s, he was America's newest and brightest guru (until a stage show in Los Angeles, at which he promised an exhibition of "total recall" by an early star pupil, became a farce - she could recall nothing). Even today, Scientologists regularly display fanatical fervour. Is it conceivable that people have been helped by Ron's diet of "dianetics" and "ethics"?

Who knows? But it appears that a rule of proximity is crucial in any assessment of Ron. Many of those closest to him - at least on the evidence they gave to Secret Lives - denounced him as a charlatan. Devotees further from the centre seem to find it easier to find a reason to believe. Like working in a sausage factory, those closest to the action characteristically become less enthusiastic about their product.

Ron Hubbard died in 1986, or, in Scientology terms, he moved on "to research the next level". He had been a talented sci-fi writer who degenerated into torturing people mentally. His Church of Scientology, which has its HQ in Clearwater, Florida, raked in $80 million last year. Lisa Marie Presley is a devotee. As portrayed in this documentary, Hubbard was a nasty nutter, not a lovable rogue. Before heading off to research the next level, he had become a sort of poor man's Howard Hughes - reclusive with long hair, longer fingernails and money to burn. Far from being a messiah with a message, he was just a mesmerizer in a mess.

Recruitment to most cults is generally best accomplished when the potential recruit is vulnerable. Perhaps that's why agents of Britain's MI5 used to approach chaps in the toilet, sorry lavatory, of London's plush Travellers Club. Mind you, it sounds like a dodgy strategy: a macho smoothie, probably unseasonally tanned and wearing a dress suit on a Tuesday evening, sidles up to you.

"We've been watching you and you're just the sort of chap we want," he says, in a public school accent. Maybe he'd wink. What if there was a pair or more of them trying to recruit you? Timewatch: The Gentlemen Spies, on the strength of that one anecdote, might more accurately have been called The Gentlemens' Spies. Based on papers released into the public domain the previous day, this film by Catrine Clay examined the origins of Military Intelligence 5.

The story began in 1908, when Britain was gripped by spy-fever. As ever, the Daily Mail took its, eh, patriotic duty seriously. "Refuse to be served by a German waiter. If your waiter says he is Swiss, ask to see his passport," the paper advised its readers. Vernon Kell, henceforth known as K, was given the task of setting up a counter-espionage network and so the original K-Club was formed.

In the early years, K, with his sidekick, Eric Holt Wilson (W), commanded an outfit of 14 people detailed to keep track of the 22 known German spies in Britain. Germans were classified by a system which ran from AA through A, AB, BA, B, to BB. An AA listing meant that you were Anglo-friendly. A BB identified you as a "Bad Boche". Timewatch didn't specify whether or not competence in algebra (along with peeing in the right places) was a prerequisite for the job. But, with K and W and C and O and M (you don't need to know!) hunting down BAs, Bs and BBs, expertise in alphabetical notation could not be a burden.

K was described as "a personality who naturally shrank from the daylight". Dealing in information, disinformation and misinformation, he was a major dude with the British political establishment. But he sounded like a bore and this documentary, for not focusing on that and other damning facts, became a form of disentertainment or misentertainment, if you recognise such a distinction.

But K and W and the rest of the alphabet boys gave rise to the cult of the British spy, which reached its pseudo-glamorous zenith in the 1950s and 1960s. Though the early spooks experimented with naff gadgetry, such as invisible ink and good cop/bad cop routines, their major asset was the fact that the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill allowed them to open people's mail. James Bond me arse, this was dull stuff. As such the programme reflected the spirit of K and his lads from the fancy bogs of London.

Back on RTE, Conor Cruise O'Brien, a man with as many past lives as most Scientologists, was the guest on The Vincent Browne Interview. His suggestion that the decline of the British royal family could destroy democracy in the Western world had definite K, indeed even Hubbard, quality. Browne, correctly if predictably, focused on a number of the massive contradictions which have characterised O'Brien's public utterances. But he did not give his guest the Full Dana (the interviewer's version of the Full Monty).

Not that it was easy to do so, anyway. O'Brien didn't recall or recognise his own quotes from The Irish Times in 1968. He dismissed UN reports which didn't suit his argument. He engaged in semantic haggling over whether or not his assertion that the Catholic church was part of a pan-nationalist consensus "squeezing Ulster Protestants" was an "accusation" or a "diagnosis". He was angry when Browne pointed out that he had quoted "selectively" from Hume-Adams.

By definition, there are pressures from the pan-nationalist consensus which do not suit the pan-unionist consensus, of which O'Brien is a vital part. But it's a two-way street. Perhaps Conor Cruise O'Brien's conversion to unionism is a deeply moral move. But, if it is, he needs to look at the fact that his adopted community institutionalised discrimination against a very sizeable section of the population it dominated. Ultra-selective memory - from whatever side - may be useful for a political polemicist. But for a political commentator, it wipes out credibility.

Finally, The Cook Report. Amid reports that Roger Cook is quitting his TV gig, it seemed appropriate to take a final peek. This week he investigated credit card fraud, admittedly a nasty business. But the scroungers and codgers involved in this particular crime are not quite Adolf Eichmann material. Cook, never a man to let proportion spoil self-righteousness dressed up as crusading entertainment, did his usual, sanctimonious report for truth, justice and the tabloid TV way.

"Thanks to us, the police get their man," he said at one stage. And it was so heavily produced. At the top of the programme, Cook met a restaurateur, Oriano Pedini, who had been jailed for accepting £17,000 of payment on dodgy credit cards. For a finale, Cook and Pedini had cooked up a ruse in which the latter would cook a meal for some of the fraudsters. Up until then, the investigation, though melodramatised, had substance. But with Cook and the cook, cooking up a scene for the cameras, it was an attempt to portray showbiz as justice.

And so it went. Cook (Roger) strode from the kitchen to confront the fraudster, who bolted. Cook called the fugitive "a cheat and a coward", which was fair enough. But his tone, as ever, was the tone of the vigilante with ambitions to be a superhero. Crime-busting as entertainment is a popular genre and Cook, you suspect, would love nothing better than a tap on the shoulder in the loo of the Travellers Club. I wonder if he's been to the right school.