New BBC Documentary on Scientology

John Sweeney has produced a second BBC Panorama documentary on the Church of Scientology, following his 2007 investigation into the subject which I blogged on here. After the earlier piece, Sweeney won plaudits for standing up to the Church’s aggressive and repellent attempts to harass and discredit him as he spoke to ex-members and other critics, but I wasn’t very impressed with the programme itself: Sweeney seemed out of his depth, and the superficial “exposé” relied to much on sensationalised confrontations (albeit handed to Sweeney on a plate by the church) rather than in-depth research.

The new documentary has little that is new – once again, ex-members relate familiar stories of intimidation after leaving a coercive and abusive environment, and once again, Sweeney is shadowed by passive-aggressive surveillance operatives. It was interesting, though, to see the interview with Mike Rinder, who was one of those who orchestrated the attempt to derail Sweeney’s 2007 investigation. Rinder has now left the Church, although he is part of a “reform” movement which still subscribes to Scientologist beliefs. This “reform” movement does not itself come under any critical scrutiny, and Sweeney even allows to Rinder to demonstrate the “e-meter” device on him without any questions about the science behind it. Of course, one wouldn’t want to alienate a high-profile defector willing to unload the goods to a journalist.

Sweeney and Rinder discussed the notorious “exploding tomato” interview, in which Sweeney was goaded into yelling at Scientology spokeman Tommy Davis; at the time, I was particularly scathing that Sweeney had been unable to control himself. However, perhaps I was too harsh: Rinder explained the strategy of finding something that would “press buttons” and then cutting off any response; in Sweeney’s case, Davis referred to Sweeney as a “bigot” over and over while interrupting his reply, until Sweeney’s frustration boiled over. Afterwards, Davis had reportedly bragged that he could drive Sweeney “psychotic.”

The new programme has prompted the Church to attempt to discredit Sweeney once again – Sweeney spoke with Amy Scobee, whose sexual history was made public by the Church after she had left the organisation. After the interview, which was in a public location, Sweeney hugged her, and the hug was photographed by Church. The Church then sent the photograph to the BBC as evidence of Sweeney’s bias (the photo was sent via Carter-Ruck, the UK’s most notorious and aggressive libel lawyers).

It seems to me that the Church’s PR strategy – if it can be called that – is a kind of institutionalised sociopathy: confidences are broken and information made public in a distorted way (along with outright lies); critics are goaded and manipulated in ways that are sophisticated; ethical qualms are completely absent; and there’s a lack of self-awareness about how unattractive such methods appear to outside observers. Certainly, that’s a cluster of characteristics I’ve encountered in other contexts…

Another review of the programme can be found on the Jack of Kent blog, in a guest posting by John Dixon; Dixon is a town councillor in Cardiff, and on Tuesday a formal complaint made against him by a Scientologist was dismissed.

3 Responses

  1. I like your approach to the documentary, I didn’t think of it originally as a PR strategy, but if it is they need to be careful! I thought that the documentary was more insightful this time round. Have a look at my version on it’s nice to see different views.


  2. Yeah is simply summed up in the last word of the doco- cult. The screaming bit was class and I’m sure it got everyone watching first time. I bet Sweeney gets people screaming in his face wherever he goes. If i saw him i would start screaming in his face. Wouldn’t be able to help myself.

  3. Scientology – pure Mumbo Jumbo started by a conman.

    As Hubbard said the best way to make money is to
    start a new religion.

    I mean that electrical “audit” box was less complex
    than a an electric kettle.

    Hope he is enjoying his time with the “Thetans” now.

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