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Scientology, John Sweeney, and the Panorama Documentary

Reporters shouldn’t lose their temper when dealing with even the most obnoxious and impossible people. This is a simple unwritten rule of journalism because by displaying your anger you can make others feel that you’re too emotionally involved in a story to report it in an unbiased manner.

For those that watched John Sweeney’s Panorama exposé on the ‘Church’ of Scientology yesterday, you’ll know what I’m referring to.

Sweeney is an exemplary investigative journalist and has previously won awards for his reports on human rights abuses in Chechnya, Kosovo and Algeria, and for his investigations into miscarriages of justice against mothers of cot death victims. His most recent subject? Scientology.

In his flagship role as a BBC Panorama journalist, he wanted to see if Scientology’s past as a (and I quote) “brainwashing cult” has persisted since the claims emerged in the mid-80s. The resulting documentary (along with a whole host of other recent Panorama documentaries) is available online for you to view at the main Panorama website. It’s fascinating – and scary – viewing, and I wholly recommend it to anyone looking to fill a 30 minute slot in their schedule with some interesting viewing.

Watching the ‘Church’ of Scientology employ investigators and henchmen to follow Sweeney and his team around is, in Sweeney’s own words, “creepy”, and seeing the Scientologists also constantly film the crew in order to create a ‘counter-documentary’ on the Panorama team – forcing them to discuss private matters in bathrooms – is also pretty, well, wierd! This documentary has now been released by the ‘Church’ of Scientology on its own exposé website and (somewhere) on YouTube, as well as DVD copies being sent to 100,000 MPs and ‘notable individuals’ around the UK.

The reason for both documentaries getting so much media exposure isn’t because either are particularly well produced investigative documentaries, but because of an outburst by John Sweeney aimed towards a high-level Scientologist. Recorded by the Scientologist’s own camera crew, the eruption was released on YouTube to attain sympathy for the ‘Church’ and as a sort of advertisement for their counter-documentary. Disjointed from the BBC documentary this outburst is actually quite amusing and achieves its goal of turning the viewer ever so slightly away from the BBC documentary. Put it in context however, and a different story emerges…

After lengthy discussions and a week full of intimidation, Sweeney was eventually allowed access to interview Scientology members at an exhibit the ‘Church’ had set up in LA… ‘Psychiatry: Industry of Death’. Taken to the (appropriately named) ‘Mind Control’ section of the exhibit, Sweeney was confronted with the Scientologist notion that psychiatrists were to blame for the rise of Nazi Germany and, in particular, the genocide of the Holocaust, and as such there needs to be a “global obliteration” of psychiatrists (or pseudo-scientists, as Scientologists like to call them). It was here, when questioned about a previous interview with a ‘dissenter’, that Sweeney ‘lost it’.

Thinking back on the incident, Sweeney has apologised to all involved and has said “I can’t wait to get back to Zimbabwe: hiding in the backs of cars from Robert Mugabe’s goons is a damn sight easier.”

Panorama – Main Page
YouTube: Scientology’s video of the outburst
Scientology website regarding the documentary (BBCPanorama-Exposed.com)
BBC follow-up on the documentary, with further stories about Scientology
The Guardian’s commentary on the controversy

4 Comments

  1. Mike
    Posted May 15, 2007 at 22:00 | Permalink

    I am deeply dissapointed in BBC’s documentary and in the fact that they actually aired it. I am starting to doubt their standards, although the news I get to read on their website is impartial enough, as well as professional.

    First of all, a topic like the Church/Cult of Scientology cannot be properly discussed in a 30 minute programme. This undermines its complexity and creates a pretty large bias margin.

    Second, Mr. Sweeney didn’t insist enough on the ‘disconnection’ part. I personally would have loved to hear a Scientologist’s point of view on that. This sounds much more concerning to me, from an ethical point of view, than the cult/religion distinction the programme insisted on.

    Last but not least, I would have liked more material on the ‘thetons’ (and whatever that measuring device measures) and the scientific ground for that.

  2. Posted May 16, 2007 at 10:25 | Permalink

    On the whole, I feel that the BBC’s news coverage both online and off is pretty impressive – the website is as neutral and professional as you’re going to get with a ‘mainstream’ broadcaster, and the majority of the TV news is similar. Newsnight, for example, is a great current affairs program presented in a truly engaging way.

    As for Panorama though, there are serious issues that – in my opinion – have been bubbling beneath the surface for years and have eventually come to fruition this year, culminating in a show that is almost a sensationalist ‘investigatory’ documentary show – not news. It’s a bit like a Michael Moore film: interesting; sometimes worth watching; brings up some good questions that need answering; and makes you think – but it can be unbelievably biased, closed-minded and is hardly ‘news’.

    Ever since the late 90s the scheduling of Panorama has been an issue, with the programme slowly migrating from its primetime slot to the graveyard slot of Sunday nights. Then, with the move back to primetime purely because the Board of Governors required more current affairs programming to be shown, the show had its slot halved and the programme became more of a ‘tabloid’ side-article in the BBC’s portfolio.

    And this brings me to a point you made, that I totally agree with. Rather than dealing with the audience-grabbing tabloid-style topic of arguing the ‘cult’ status of Scientology, the show should have concentrated more on the evidence at hand… especially family ‘disconnection’.

    Thanks for the comment,
    Lloyd

  3. Posted May 16, 2007 at 16:59 | Permalink

    I watched this last night. I agree with Mike that the length of it really didn’t work for this topic, it needed some more thorough coverage.

    But, listening to John Travolta et al, discussing how much of an impact Scientology made on their career (“I wouldn’t have made it without them” etc), I don’t doubt that Scientology provides some important services for the stars. Judging by whole their PR performance, the Scientologists have clearly learned a lot about the psychology of manipulation, and what actor would not be interested by that? Actors are manipulators by nature. Plus there is the whole “club” vibe of it, with all kinds of internal gossip and mud slinging about, well, everyone who isn’t a Scientologist… I can see the allure of that.

    Plus, they’ve probably have developed a good framework to help actors deal with paparazzi and other difficult people.

    But that doesn’t make it a church, and I’m appalled that they have the status of a church here in the US.

    From a negotiation perspective, I loved watching how the Scientology reps used personal attacks on the BBC reporters to keep the conversation away from topics of any substance. They said very little of, “It seems like your story is one-sided, can we talk about that…” and a whole lot of, “You are a bad reporter and you make me sick.” It’s very similar to what Bill O’Reilly does.

  4. Posted May 17, 2007 at 10:05 | Permalink

    You may be interested in these two posts from ‘The Editors‘ – the blog written by various editors of BBC News;

    Investigating Scientology was written by Sandy Smith, the editor of Panorama, and in it he is defending the documentary in the same way that you would defend yourself for hitting someone by saying they hit you first. It’s simply the editor’s rebuttal in a battle of words which – as you say, Carl – was prevalent in the documentary.

    Improving Journalism on the other hand is written by the BBC College of Journalism’s editor – Kevin Marsh – and is a more academic look on the future of small grassroots journalism vs. the archetypal ‘Big Journalism’ model. I’ll quote from the end of it:

    … the reason it’s to be welcomed is that it will improve journalism; perhaps even raise our trust in what journalists tell us.

    After all, if the argument for investigative journalism is that things done in the light are done with more integrity and accountability than things done in the dark… then the argument for investigating journalism – for audiences and those journalism puts in the news to investigate journalism – is unanswerable. Journalism that has integrity and honesty in the first place has nothing to fear.