Last year, the BBC reported that a building owned by the Church of Scientology in northeast England was drawing the ire of local residents. The property in Gateshead—purchased in 2007 for £1.5 million—is depicted on a U.K. Scientology website as an immaculately tended estate with a wide, sloping lawn. In the center of the image, an Arthurian sword, lodged in a stone, catches the rays of the sun. “Northumbria is the area where an entire revival of the United Kingdom's spiritual and cultural fabric emanated from in the 7th Century,” reads the accompanying text, “and now, from where it will shine once again.”
The Scientology site fails to mention that the building has never been occupied since it was purchased, or that it was damaged by a 2011 fire and never repaired. But the BBC article—the first Google search result for the words “Scientology” and “Gateshead”—describes it as a derelict building filled with squatters, its empty parking lot littered with “old sofas, rubbish, and used needles.” Nearby business owners and council members describe it as an eyesore.
Scientology, the movement established by L. Ron Hubbard in the ’50s, has long been known for its efforts to manipulate information about it in the public sphere. The group carefully crafts its image through widespread publicity campaigns (including a native advertisement published on this site in 2013) while suing and attacking those who portray it unfavorably. Over the past 25 years, the Church has filed lawsuits against high-profile publications such as Time and The Washington Post, as well as ex-employees who criticize the Church publicly. Hubbard himself encouraged aggressive legal action toward people who revealed secret information about the Church. According to a 1997 New York Times article, Hubbard once told his followers, “The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than win … If possible, of course, ruin [the opponent] utterly.”