Monday, 31 December 2007

The Church of Scientology and the Anger of a Quiet Man

Does the name John Sweeney mean anything to you? If you were to pass him in the street you probably wouldn't look at him twice, yet he's probably the BBC's best investigative journalist.

I met the man last year, while he was helping Nicky and Mark Webster with their well publicised case against Norfolk social services. He gave me quite a bit of advice when the social services put a gagging order on the website I'd launched to highlight Nicky and Mark's case. He shook me by the hand, and thanked me for the help I'd not only given to the Websters, but to him as well. He came across as quite an unassuming man, the sort of person who would do anything to help someone in need.

Yesterday Paul told me about some videos that had been posted on YouTube about John's latest project, investigating the Church of Scientology. Paul told me of a video, apparently posted by a member of the church, which shows John blowing up at Tommy Davis. Here's the link; Once there you'll also see a couple of other videos that  have been uploaded since then, some of them showing their support for what John did.

I didn't actually watch that particular video until a few moments ago, but having heard about it, I decided to watch tonight's edition of Panorama on BBC1, the programme in which John tries to investigate the Church of Scientology.

It certainly made for interesting viewing. The beginning of the programme John told about how he tried to negotiate access to buildings owned by the scientologists, but because John wanted to use certain words such as cult, the talks broke down.

Despite this setback, John decided to continue with his investigation anyway, and investigation that at first took him to Florida. Once there he interviewed a couple, Mike and Donna Henderson, who had been members of the church for thirty years, donating over a million dollars before they left, against the church's wishes, a decade ago.When they left, twenty family members, also scientologists, refused to have anything to do with them or Mike's dying father. They dis-connected, a term used by Scientologists. The sad thing is that Mike's father will probably never see the rest of his children again.

As John went about his investigations in Florida, and later in Los Angeles, he found that he was being stalked. He was followed by cars, and whenever he tried to interview anyone, high-ranking scientologist Tommy Davis would suddenly appear out of nowhere, trying to discredit those John was interviewing, and berating John at every opportunity.

While in Los Angeles, Davis set up a series of interviews for John with several celebrity scientologists, including Ann Archer, Kirsty Allie, Leah Reminy and Juliette Lewis. The interviews apparently went well, as they each gave glowing tributes to the church and about how scientology had helped them in their lives.

But the thing was, we didn't actually hear them say this. Just days before the showed aired, a court order was obtained in California threatening legal action against the BBC if they broadcast these comments.

Once the celebrity interviews were finished, Davis launched into another verbal tirade against John. By now Davis' act was becoming tired and boring. He was starting to seem more like a raving madman than a so-called religous figure.

The final straw came during a scientology exhibition called "'Psychiatry: Industry of Death". The exhibition showed some extremely graphic images, and claims that psychiatrists have a master plan or something for taking over the world, and were to blame for the deaths of stars like Billie Holliday and Kurt Cobain, and were also to blame for the events of World War II.

While interviewing a critic of Scientology, who should turn up again but Tommy Davis. Davis, despite not having heard the entire interview, accused John of giving the intervewee an easy ride. Having been stalked by Davis and his various people for nearly a week, John lost it, and got into a shouting match with Davis.

John, showing a great deal of class the likes of which Davis never showed, immediately apologised for his outburst. He also made an apology both on the BBC website, and on air.

But since the filming of the documentary finished, John revealed that he has continued to he harrassed. He wrote on the BBC website; "Back in Britain strangers have called on my neighbours, my mother-in-law's house and someone spied on my wedding and fled the moment he was challenged."

Scientology church founder L. Rob Hubbard once declared that anyone who opposed his religion was "fair game", and could legitimately be tricked, lied, sued of destroyed. Love thy neighbour this certainly isn't, and the church claims that this policy is no longer carried out.

John has been internally disciplined by the BBC for his actions, but he hasn't lost his job. But the real point here is this - in the opinion of many who watched the programme, John Sweeney was "fair game" as far as the scientologists were concerned. He was stalked and harrassed to the point where something had to give.

The Church of Scientology wanted John to give a fair and impartial account of their religion for Panorama, but by not giving him any access to their buildings, they shot themselves in the foot.

I've read a great deal about Scientology over the past few years or so, and most of it hasn't made for comfortable reading. As an advertisement for the church, this was a disaster, as they came across as an over-protective cult who would do anything, at any cost, to protect their precious secrets.

But the refreshing thing is, not all scientologists act in the way that Tommy Davis did.

When he appeared on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross a few weeks ago, Ross asked John Travolta about his religous beliefs. The answer Travolta gave was quite refreshing as he told of how the scientologist belief system and helped the lives of him and his family, although he doesn't feel comfortable trying to force his own beliefs on others.

I believe John Sweeney to be a man of integrity. To go through what he has while doing his job also shows that he is a man of courage. He carried out his investigation in very trying circumstances, and I applaud him for his efforts.

As for The Church of Scientology, they've done nothing to prove that they are nothing more than a cult, as simple as that.

If you want to watch the episode of Panorama yourself to get your own view, here's the link from the
BBC website;