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The People of “Secret Lives”: Merchants of CHAOS
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The People of ''Secret Lives'': Merchants of CHAOS

A Story of Hatchet Wielding Television

“Media ethics” is a bankrupt oxymoron. With its latest display of sensational irresponsibility, Channel 4 TV has completed its initiation into the world of tabloid journalism.

     “If you don’t leave, I’ll have to call the police.”

ith intrusive paparazzi and relentless media hounds of late even more unpopular than usual, a call for police assistance from someone feeling “harassed” by an interviewer may not seem out of the ordinary. In this case, there is a difference: The man protesting the “intrusion” was television producer Simon Berthon.

     As the hatchet man behind some of the most intrusive episodes of “The Big Story,” “Secret Lives,” and other tabloid television productions, Berthon is a veteran of the “ambush interview,” undercover filming, and even infiltration of his victims by agents armed with hidden cameras.

     With the shoe on the other foot, Berthon displayed an uncharacteristic conviction about the value of “privacy.” Politely asked a harmless question—the name of a solicitor acting for Channel 4 TV—Berthon replied. Moments later, trembling with rage, Berthon roared that he had been “tricked” into answering. Violently snatching at the interviewer’s pad, he sought to rip out the pages containing notes.

     Approached in the street by a Freedom camera crew, Berthon’s reporter Jill Robinson responded no less hypocritically.

     “This is not the normal way ethically we do interviews in this country—you don’t have an appointment,” protested Robinson. To “protect her privacy,” a male companion struggled to cover the cameraman’s lens.

     When harassing others, Robinson sees things differently. Her own “interview” tactics have included the use of an undercover reporter with a miniature camera concealed in the frame of her spectacles, and deploying hidden cameras across the street from her victims.

Bankrupt Journalism

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Reporter Jill Robinson is known for her “hit and run”, cameras-rolling ambush “interviews”.

     Berthon and Robinson are typical of the hatchet-wielding “documentary” producers who have sacrificed journalistic ethics in pursuit of ratings. Their work is familiar to Freedom because of their intractable dishonesty in a series of programmes intended to harm the Church of Scientology.

     For the first of these, they sent a “researcher” into the Church with hidden surveillance equipment. Even after the “researcher” was caught on video, attempting to steal Church documents, and removed by local police, Berthon insisted he intended a “fair” programme.

     Yet, when the covertly obtained footage of Church services proved unsensational, they created the false picture they intended with a studio “re-enactment” of a “minister” counselling a parishioner.

     Sinister shadows, “monster lighting,” and a droning voice produced a cleric who looked and sounded utterly demonic. The darkened room and the demonized “priest” resembled no Church of Scientology anywhere in the world. This degraded perversion was then served up to the public as a “documentary.”

     In their second assault on the Church, research was so poor they not only ended up broadcasting slanderous material, but slandered the wrong person and Carlton TV wound up paying £ 10,000 in damages.

     With this background, they were the perfect choice for Channel 4’s November 19 “Secret Lives” segment on L. Ron Hubbard—philosopher, humanitarian and founder of the Scientology religion. This, their latest hatchet job, presents a perfect study of the reasons the British “news” media is increasingly loathed, and why even frustrated free-speech advocates concede enough is enough.

     The point is not that the programme presented one-sided, out-of-context or even blatantly false information about its subject—although it obviously did—but that the ethical bankruptcy of Berthon’s and Robinson’s journalism comes more from how they portray their own work.

     To cover for the fact that the show was almost entirely a re-hash of discredited allegations abandoned by “respectable” journalists a decade ago, the “Secret Lives” producers created their own “news angle”: The Church of Scientology, they said, refused to cooperate, demanded editorial control, and sought to stop the programme.

     Apart from the fact that these points are obviously self-contradictory, they are delusory marketing contrivances intended to create the kind of controversy the tabloids thrive on. They also reflect a common practice of tabloids—assign a reporter known to be a butcher so the “victim” has only two choices: either submit to an interview and get chopped up, knowing that anything positive is going to get cut out in the editing room anyway; or, refuse to cooperate and allow the reporter free rein. Both choices are a “lose” for the victim.

So what really happened?

[ image ]
Robinson sent a “researcher” into the Church with hidden surveillance equipment. But the “researcher” was caught on video attempting to steal church documents, and was removed by local police.

     Far from “refusing to cooperate,” neither the Church nor Mr. Hubbard’s official representatives were even contacted by the reporters, producers, or Channel 4 to tell them a show was being considered or prepared. The Church heard about the show from others—months after work had already started. Considering the methods employed by Berthon and Robinson for their prior pieces—lying to get access to Church property, attempting to take Church documents, staging fake studio scenes, mixing up names and the like—Church representatives made repeated telephone calls to Robinson in the hope that any blatant errors could be avoided at the outset.

     Robinson avoided all calls. She even made two trips throughout the United States to prepare her show, both times including trips to Los Angeles—the home of the Church’s international headquarters and Mr. Hubbard’s biographer. When Ms Robinson’s office was contacted to arrange a meeting, the Church was told she was “on vacation.”

     That “vacation” was found to consist of a series of interviews, including discussions with former Church members expelled for their misdeeds, and long ago exposed in a plot to extort money from the Church (see “Secret Lies,”). Among them: Gerry Armstrong, a fugitive from justice in the United States, seeking to avoid a jail cell after he was found in contempt of court for spreading lies about Mr. Hubbard and the Church. He owes the Church hundreds of thousands of dollars for grievous violations of court orders. This is the same man who was captured on video boasting of his ability to falsify—"I can create documents with relative ease. I used to do it for a living. ... Just f–ing allege it.” What’s more, rather than contacting the Church or seeing Church facilities while in Los Angeles, she travelled to Canada, where this “source” was hiding out from U.S. law enforcement.

     Ms Robinson then travelled to Seattle, Washington, to speak to another “source”, a failed writer, pornography editor and cab driver who had repeatedly demanded vast sums from the Church in exchange for his “silence"—and who never met L. Ron Hubbard. This man’s only source of income comes from his willingness to testify against Scientology. It is quite simple. If he does not provide the story the lawyer or reporter demands, he does not get paid.

     Ms Robinson also flew to Denver, Colorado, to meet a man who, in an act of blunt extortion, had told Church officials that he would create “World War III” if not immediately paid $12 million—and who also never knew Mr. Hubbard.

     There is no shortage of people who did know and work closely with L. Ron Hubbard for many years. It does not take an investigative reporter to find such people in enough quantity to fill many television hours with personal anecdotes of their shared experiences with him. But to ignore them all and wind up with the tiny clique of “sources” used by Berthon and Robinson is like describing the life of Sir Winston Churchill through the eyes of known Nazi sympathizers of the era. Such people could be found, but would their “secret life” of the former Prime Minister be taken seriously? Only by fellow Nazis.

     In fact, if Berthon and Robinson had employed even a fraction of their “investigative reporter” skills to verify the reliability of their sources they would have come up with a startlingly consistent picture. Echoing the character of Gerry Armstrong and the others mentioned above, another of the show’s “sources” is so fanatical in his hatred of Scientology and Scientologists he was convicted and jailed in Germany in connection with a physical assault on a young woman. He has also hired himself out as a paid “deprogrammer"—offering to use dangerous psychiatric techniques to change people’s religious beliefs.

     Another of the show’s sources was a woman who is known to have been involved in a plot to kill her own father, and whose brother went to jail for murder when he carried out their plans. She had been resoundingly rejected by the court in an earlier attempt to foster her lies for profit when she filed a suit seeking one billion dollars and a take-over of the Church. After re-filing her unfounded claims five times, it was tossed in the judicial rubbish bin once and for all because her allegations had neither substance nor evidence to support them.

     Further proof of the undiluted prejudice of the “Secret Lives” team is that the producers were provided with evidence of the complete unreliability of their sources, yet not only were these sources not discarded in favour of others who could testify accurately about the life of L. Ron Hubbard, but the sources were not even challenged.

     How do such characters fit into a biography of L. Ron Hubbard? They don’t. Would their ongoing blackmail efforts benefit from an anti-Scientology climate created by hostile media? In the real world, no. But in their minds, yes. In fact, they have repeatedly threatened that unless huge sums of money were paid to them, they would “create bad publicity” for the Church.

[ image ]

     When representatives of the Church did finally persuade Ms Robinson to meet at the end of her final U.S. trip, Robinson even conceded that the two earlier programmes about Scientology she had worked on with Berthon were hatchet jobs, but blamed her editors. She said, “Let me try to reassure you on that. The two programmes I have made before were a different series... a hard-hitting tabloid-based programme—that is its nature.... [T]he editors of the shows at the time—there were two different editors—had asked me to go and do ... well ... you know what the two programmes were about....”

     Still, the Church representatives and L. Ron Hubbard’s biographer presented evidence showing her current sources as unworthy of belief and involved in a plot to extort the Church. And they made a very sensible suggestion: that she not waste her time talking to those who never knew Mr. Hubbard and who only had the most base motives of personal wealth at heart.

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