Scientology Responds to Sweeney

The Church of Scientology has responded to John Sweeney’s lame “exposé” of the religion with an “exposé” of Sweeney and the BBC. Sweeney’s documentary, for the Panorama news programme, has received considerable media attention due to Sweeney’s ridiculous screaming at Tony Davis. Sweeney says that he lost control in order to resist “brainwashing” – a process that appears to consist of Davis annoying Sweeney with aggressive and irritating comments. Other than that, most of the show features Sweeney roaming around with a camera-crew in an affected “investigative journalist” raincoat. Indeed, it wasn’t really clear what, ultimately, Sweeney was trying to find out, and one was put in mind of Brass Eye. One instance of Sweeney’s failure: when various celebrity Scientologists and Davis claim to know nothing about the science-fiction story which serves as the Scientology mythos, Sweeney fails press Davis on the point. A clip from a previous, 1987, Panorama programme (available here) served only to remind us how much better the programme was in the old days.

The Church’s “rebuttal” programme manages to make the hapless Sweeney look even more out of his depth. Asked to define “brainwashing”, he doesn’t have an answer. We also see a few stunts that Sweeney wisely left out of his finished product: in particular, we see him trying to goad John Travolta at a Leicester Square film premiere, in a manner reminiscent more of Dennis Pennis than of a serious journalist. However, the video also cuts its footage of Sweeney for dramatic – and, quite obviously, propagandistic – value. There’s also a silly attempt to discredit Sweeney more generally by mentioning his 1997 conviction for criminal libel, but without going into the details (the case was brought in France by the Barclay brothers on the grounds that something Sweeney had said on Radio Guernsey could be heard in France).

The “rebuttal” concludes with the claim that Sweeney orchestrated a demonstration against the Church’s centre in Tottenham Court Road, and that this turn inflamed a “terrorist” threat against them. The “evidence” presented for this is a comment left on the blog of Xenu TV. But the text does not support the contention that Sweeney staged the event, let alone that he had anything to do with any threat:

London Critic Says:

December 13th, 2006 at 3:03 pm

I’d just like to point out (as one of the critics featured in [a short film included on the Xenu website]) that we were not told by the individual who filmed that she was intending to release this film on the internet, nor were we shown it before she released it to you.

We had a team of researchers from BBC’s “Panorama” filming us, but that film is not intended for broadcast; “Panorama” have requested permission to film us for a demo planned next year, and wanted some private footage to get some idea of what typically happens during one of our demos. For the “official” filming, we will be required to sign consent forms.

We have no problems with someone filming if they ask consent and clear it with us first. But this was not done with our knowledge and consent.

I should also point out that the person who sent you this film is not one of the regular UK critics, being a visiting critic from Germany.

Several critics of television news reporting are also featured on the “rebuttal” (although none refer to the Sweeney programme directly): the Rt Rev Graham James of the BBC Religious Advisory Committee and Jay Lakhani of the Hindu Council complain about the representation of religion (Lakhami states that “BBC programmes that relate to religion or spirituality are run by people who should not be in a position of power there”), and journalists Robin Aiken and Ted Hynds critique the way news is created for television. There’s also input from Ron Williams, an “International Security Consultant” – but no mention that he actually runs Talon Executive Services, which a number of sources claim has links with the church.

Lesson: if the BBC wants to find out what makes an unusual religious group tick, it would be far better off sending in Louis Theroux than a sensation-seeking and poorly-informed news hack.