How Scientology's Skirmish With The Daily Mail Could Shake Up British Media Regulations

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David Miscavige (left) and Tom Cruise

Church leader David Miscavige filed a complaint over a story headlined "Exclusive: Inside the 'Bromance' of Tom Cruise and Scientology Leader David Miscavige" that could have a big impact on the way Britain's media watchdog regulates the press.

The Church of Scientology's controversial leader, David Miscavige, may be an unwitting catalyst for a dramatic power shift in the U.K. media landscape.

In December, a story ran on the website of the U.K.'s Daily Mail tabloid titled "Exclusive: Inside the 'bromance' of Tom Cruise and Scientology leader David Miscavige." It laid out the usual tale of the star's links to the church, where he was said to be treated as "royalty" and would "smoke cigars and gamble in Vegas" with Miscavige, who once allegedly ordered a meadow of flowers planted so the actor could woo Nicole Kidman.

Upset by the story, Miscavige filed a complaint with the U.K.'s Independent Press Standards Organization, arguing that many of the claims had been previously denied or disproved. British law is much less tolerant of press freedoms than American law, so IPSO upheld the complaint, but in an unexpected turn, Mail Online argued that since the article originated in its U.S. division, it fell outside IPSO's remit.

The case has thrown British media into a quandary: Will news sites set up foreign bureaus to sidestep oversight and handle the salacious stories that drive big online traffic?

IPSO, which was established just two years ago in the wake of the News Corp phone-hacking scandal, appears to be caught off guard by the defense. The regulator had demanded the Mail publish an article on its home-page for 24 hours outlining how it broke the British Editor's Code of Practice, as it has with several other publications.

But following the publication's refusal to respond, IPSO is now launching a review of its jurisdiction, expected to be finished by the end of the year. Some media lawyers — including those who represent celebrities — fear that given the regulator is funded by its powerful British members (including Mail owners DMG Media), it simply will give publications the chance to skirt all accountability.

"One option it has is simply saying that if you have a U.S. section, it won't regulate that," says Jonathan Coad, a partner at the Lewis Silkin law firm who has had extensive dealings with the U.K. press, IPSO and Scientology. "And what will happen then is that The Sun will open up a U.S. section and so will The Mirror and everyone else. They're probably opening them up as we speak."

Coad suggests if U.K. publishers have the option of operating an unregulated website section from outside the country, Fleet Street could soon return to the environment that led to the hacking scandal. Similar to the U.S., the only option for combating libel would be costly litigation, now with the added complication of the U.K.'s new defamation law, passed in 2013, that says claimants must prove their reputations had suffered "serious harm."

Adds Coad, "It's essentially a further effort by the newspaper industry not to be accountable to anybody for what they write, which is a threat to us all."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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