Every October, Scientologists come to Saint Hill Manor in England (just outside London) from all over the world to attend a formal event celebrating the International Association of Scientologists (IAS).
This organisation started life as a legal defence fund for Scientologists, and gradually morphed into a general-purpose fund for the leadership to spend at a whim.
David Miscavige, the current leader of the Church of Scientology is always the centre of attention at IAS events, and makes marathon speeches.
IAS funds were likely used to finance an expensive effort to complete new Scientology facilities in Dublin, Ireland and Birmingham, England so that Miscavige could open them while he was relatively nearby.
When I went to Ireland, to observe the opening there, I wondered if the trip would be worthwhile. After all, people like me, and the locals, would be utterly excluded. When I got there, I realised that showing the remarkable ‘security’ operation mounted by Scientology in order to do this was actually and excellent illustration of its paranoid and controlling nature.
An organisation which presents itself as a religion behaved as if their new Church was a military base. Measures taken included closing sidewalks, surrounding it with private security guards and using outward-facing loudspeakers to mask the sound of the speech.
I’ve given an eye-witness report from Dublin in a previous post. This one is from Birmingham, concerning the opening of Pitmaston house as a Church of Scientology on the 22nd of October.
Scientology remained true to form, and repeated the incredible behaviour they had exhibited in Ireland.
Approaching the Site
It is supposed to indicate that there are roadworks ahead. There were not. However, Scientology often tells local councils that are performing such works. It helps them them acquire orders temporarily closing a public area, which they use to exclude non-Scientologists from sight of their events.
The sign is supposed to show someone using a shovel, but they always look to me to be struggling to erect an umbrella – and umbrellas will feature in this story later.
How Scientology Excludes Local People
Both ends of the road passing by the outdoor area where the opening ceremony was to take place (the car park behind the low wall) were closed off. Most Scientologists came in by the ‘main entrance’ (image below).
Corrugated sheeting can be seen here. This was used to block any view of proceedings from the main road, which runs at a right angle to the blocked access road as well, as we shall see later.
Scientologists were also admitted through a barrier at the other end of the road (at the left-hand side of the image below). The leaf-strewn path on the right-hand side of the image provided the only public access.
Security guards insistently refused non-Scientologists entry to the pavement outside the building and to the road. However, the Council seems to have decided that the pavement on the other side should stay open, to afford residents access to nearby buildings.
There has been at least one security guard watching over the completion of the renovations for at least the previous week. There were four security guards visible outside the premise at all times during the event. It would not be a stretch to assume that up to six were there.
These guys are typically paid around£18 an hour. To make a profit, the company has to charge around three times what they pay – that’s £54 an hour. That’s a lot of money over the period but it ‘achieved’ two things:
Keeping people from finding out what they were doing, in insured that:
- Their appearance in the community was a fait accompli (residents were taken completely by surprise by both the opening of the facility and the road closure)
- The video of the presentation was under complete control
- Scientologists were not exposed to the wider world
How Scientology Tries to Prevent Photographs and Video Being Taken
Since people could see the ceremony from the footpath that Scientology could not stop them using, all of the the coaches (which had brought the Scientologists in from all over the country) were parked along the road to present a visual barrier.
Here’s a view of the ‘great wall of coaches’ from both ends
I walked through one of the gaps between the coaches and took some pictures before two security guards hurried up to insist that I went back to the permitted footpath.
Below, we can see the huge camera boom and lifts that are used to film the event. Also, the ribbon on the building which falls to mark the official opening, after Miscavige pulls a rope.
The equipment used to video the event is all of professional standard and the staging elaborate.
Critics suggest that:
- The only reason Miscavige attends these events at all is to acquire images of the opening ceremonies which are used to persuade what remains of Scientology’s shrinking membership that the Church needs new buildings because it is expanding.
- The reason why Scientologist from far and wide are strongly urged to attend it provide a convincing crowd – the 2011 census recorded only 88 Scientologists in the Birmingham area, including minor children and Independent Scientologists (those who follow some version of Hubbard’s teachings outside of the Church). That would not have looked impressive in an video intended to convince members that there were millions of Scientologist in the country.
In fact, membership is small and contracting. The huge facility which was opened in Dublin a week ago has an auditorium that can seat 1,200 people. However, according to the 2016 Irish Census, there are only 87 Scientologists there. The 2011 Census here recorded 2,418 Scientologists in England and Wales,
The final picture I managed to snatch shows the audience patiently waiting to pass through a second level of security, having to show their invitations once again, after already being admitted through the barriers at the top and bottom of the road.
It took the security guards less than a minute to move in – they can be seen below, on the grass. Soon I was back behind a row of huge vehicles.
Of course, there were still gaps between the parked coaches that people could see through. In one case the coaches were so close together, it was impossible to pass. In others, the vehicles were further apart.
As the time of the ceremony approached, wherever a view of the ceremony was to be had, someone stood on the other side of the gaps holding one of the umbrellas I mentioned early. This was specifically to prevent photographs and video being taken.
When protesters started to take pictures through the front windows of the coaches this was noticed, and umbrellas appeared inside the cabs, too.
Protesters and locals still insisted on taking pictures, in one case using a fallen tree branch to hold a camera aloft. Here’s one excellent image, taken during the speeches
Scientology’s response was to turn one of their powerful stage lights around, so that it blinded cameras pointed at the podium.
We have to take a pause for thought here. For the second time in a week, Scientology was opening a new Church.
- Local people were prevented from standing on their own pavements to watch a speech by a row of strategically parked coaches, barriers and private security guards
- They were prevented from watching from across the road by corrugated panels and blinded by powerful lights
- They were preventing from hearing the speeches by the coaches running their engines
What on Earth is Scientology afraid of, that it needs such repressive measures to prevent the public seeing the ceremony that opens what they claim to be a Church?
How to Take Pictures and Make Video Anyway
The best way, of course, it to blag an invitation on the day (I wish I had thought of that) as this chap did. He gives an extensive account of the ceremony from the inside, including some excellent photographs of the rather disappointing turnout.
I walked around the corner, to the more promising area along the main road. This runs at right angles to the access road, and was blocked off by corrugated panels, clamped together behind the low wall.
Further down, there is a flat area of wall and reporters from TV and the local newspaper initially climbed onto it to get pictures and shoot video.
However, they were spotted within seconds by Scientologists, and security guards quickly turned up to inform them that this was private property and they had to get down. When they declined, the guards told them that they would take their cameras away from them if they did not comply.
The reporters object quite strongly to this. The guards were entitled to summon the police officer attending, who was just around the corner. He had the power to tell them to get down, and arrest them if they didn’t. If the guards had done what they threatened, they would have committed the criminal offence of common assault.
However, in the time it took for police to attend, pictures would have been taken and footage shot. The private security company seems to have been instructed by their client that no images were to be made, and were prepared to be unprofessionally compliant.
The reporters simply went away, and came back with a small, but adequate stepladder. The private security guards came back too, looked at them sternly, and then went away, impotent. The reporters were on public ground, and there was nothing the guards could do.
They kindly allowed me to hop up, and take these images.
Once again, the umbrellas were in evidence. There was very light rain during the ceremony, and these blue umbrellas were issued to all Scientologists. Inside information suggests that some Scientologists had brought their own umbrellas, and were told to use those issued instead because uniformity would look better in the video that was being made.
This what it looked like from the point of view of an ‘infiltrator’. It looks rather less convincing than the subsequent official images, taken with very wide-angle lenses from a high viewpoint in order to distort perspective.
The stage light, being used to blind the cameras of protesters, can be seen in the first picture to the middle right.
You can also see the huge video screens that appear at all these openings to insure that everyone who attends can see the speakers, despite sometimes limited space.
Unfortunately for Scientology, their heavy -handed tactics were easily defeated by simple methods . It’s not hard to make them look foolish.
I acquired (wobbly) video of on of the big displays by simply poking my camera through one of the gaps between the corrugated panels (see below).
I was too far away for consistently audible sound but clearly saw Miscavige, and other speakers, apparently praising those who had donated the most money.
The climax of the proceedings typically come when Miscavige and a chosen few local Scientologists pull on a rope which appears to dislodge the ribbons on the front of the building (actually it is released by the people who rigged the ribbon, when they see the rope pulled).
This shot of the video screen shows the chosen ones gathering to pull the rope. Before they they did so, the feed was replaced by a logo for Birmingham ‘Ideal Org’ and a fanfare was played. Then everyone simply went home. For the culmination of years of fund-raising, it seemed distinctly anticlimactic.
This is how Scientology presented the Rope pull, later. Unlike Dublin, Miscavige did not have to do it on his own.
Very Bad Video of the Ceremony
This is the best I could do through a tiny gap in temporary fencing, while harassed by a strange man from the Sea Org. It was a long way away, I only had an old consumer-quality video camera and my back was to the main road.
Be careful with the volume – the traffic noise is brutal.
The Local Reaction
Just like Ireland, the local people were generally not happy. Those I spoke to:
- Objected to being excluded from their own city to serve some strange agenda required a ceremony that was to be presented as a public event to be treated like a deadly secret
- Were puzzled by the fact that neither the opening nor the road closure had been widely publicised, and had happened at short notice
- Found the behaviour of the private security who prevented their access to the closed areas oppressive
- Wanted to know if Tom Cruise would be there (he wasn’t)
The whole thing took just over an hour. Then the Scientologists all started to file out again. There were no social activities after the ceremony. The video had been captured, and their services were apparently no longer required.
All of this effort seem to have been made for two purposes:
- Insure, at any cost, that the leaders speech (and the video made of it) presents a perfect propaganda image for Scientologists everywhere. As they are taught that the outside world is corrupt and populated by “degraded beings”, the public must be excluded.
- Control the small contingent of peaceful protesters, and keep them away from Scientologists – for example the desperadoes below, whose words are considered so dangerous to the faith of Scientologists, that some were assigned their own minders to watch over them ( called ‘handlers’ by Scientologists).
The Press Reaction
Most of the press accounts are based on the excellent coverage by the Birmingham Mail who gathered quotes from the public which ranged from tepid to hostile to sarcastic. Scientologists declined to speak to, or admit the press. Their post includes video.
The following links contribute some information but derive all their on-the-spot information from the Birmingham Mail.
Th e”Daily Mail” is a grab-bag of other people’s coverage ‘spiced up’ with ‘news’ that Priscilla Presley has left Scientology – something she actually did years ago.
The BBC local radio service for the West Midlands has also interviewed ex-scientologists Pete Griffiths (who can be seen front left standing in the grey coat). The BBC presenter was very careful to avoid legal liability
The second programme opened with a presenter who sounded desperate to get comment from the Church or from Scientologists as part of his regular phone-in show, after Scientology refused to be interviewed or make a statement.
It opened with comment from the rather naive member of an “inter-faith organisation” who was one of the participants in the opening ceremony. He maintained (rather implausibly) that the reason Scientology wanted nothing to do with the BBC was because everyone was still tired after putting so much effort into the opening.
The rest of the participants were almost uniformly hostile. The programme another, longer, interview with Pete Griffiths.
No Scientologists participated, and the host stated that he had seen no positive publicity whatsoever for Scientology.