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