The BBC man, the Scientologist - and the YouTube rant

The Observer, UK/May 13, 2007
By David Smith

A Journalist at Panorama, the BBC’s flagship current affairs series, has been reprimanded for losing his temper and screaming with rage during the making of an investigation into the Church of Scientology.

John Sweeney has apologised for the outburst against a Scientologist which was filmed and then put on the video-sharing website YouTube, prompting criticism of the corporation. The BBC held an internal inquiry but said Sweeney had not breached.

The incident is one of the first examples of ‘video ambushing’, where organisations being investigated turn the camera on the film makers. The Church of Scientology, whose members include the Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta, shadowed the Panorama team in America with its own camera crew. It has made a ‘counter documentary’, attacking Sweeney’s methods, and distributed 100,000 DVDs to MPs, civil servants, religious groups, media organisations and business leaders.

Panorama has responded by posting a YouTube clip of its own in which leading scientologist Tom Davis, a friend of Cruise and son of the film actress Anne Archer, also a scientologist, is seen losing his temper at Sweeney’s use of the words ’sinister cult’ and storming away mid-interview with the reporter in hot pursuit. In a separate clash Archer, an Oscar nominee for her role as Michael Douglas’s wife in Fatal Attraction, is understood to have snapped when Sweeney asked if she could have been brainwashed. The Church has withdrawn consent for the BBC to use the footage and Panorama is being hastily re-edited for broadcast tomorrow, but will still include the Sweeney outburst.

Journalists in all media are facing greater scrutiny than ever from bloggers and independent film makers armed for a video ambush. Michael Moore, an award winner for documentaries including Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, is himself the subject of a website, Moorewatch, a book, Michael Moore Is A Big Fat Stupid White Man, and a forthcoming film, Manufacturing Dissent, which examines his methods. Dan Rather, the veteran US news anchorman, was forced to retire after blogs showed that a CBS report questioning President Bush’s National Guard service had been based on forged documents, and Reuters sacked a photographer exposed by bloggers as having doctored a picture.

Sweeney lost his temper while visiting the Church of Scientology’s exhibition, ‘Psychiatry: Industry of Death’, which uses graphic images to attack psychiatry. Sweeney said that, having dogged him for six days, Davis accused him of giving an easy ride to one of his interviewees, a critic of Scientology, even though he had not heard the full interview. It was then that Sweeney, his face contorted with anger and his finger jabbing, began yelling at the top of his voice: ‘You were not there at the beginning of the interview! You were not there! You did not hear or record all the interview!’

The response of YouTube users has been damning. One said yesterday: ‘I for one feel confident and glad that I am paying good money for this psycho to remain on television! Is this really what English TV has degraded itself to?’ Another wrote: ‘Surely this is a joke right? How can a mentally unbalanced man like this be a BBC reporter? This kinda makes you wonder if he is not dreaming up what he reports or if TV actually reports truth! Man I’m done with the BBC.’

Sweeney, a former Observer journalist, admits he went too far. ‘I am hugely embarrassed,’ he said. ‘I look like an exploding tomato and shout like a jet engine and every time I see it it makes me cringe. The moment it happened I said sorry. I let the side down and the BBC down and I am ashamed. But I felt I was being brainwashed and if people see the full clip I think they will have more sympathy with me’

The journalist has been disciplined after an internal investigation. ‘I’ve been arse-kicked but I haven’t been fired,’ he added. ‘I feel mortified. There is no one on this planet more irritated then me. Fool, Sweeney, fool. It was like an animal reaction to a series of images and pressures. I felt they were trying to control my mind. 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.’

It is not the first time the Church of Scientology has been accused of riling opponents by ‘bull baiting’, a technique in which members are taught to remain calm even under extreme provocation. Mike Rinder, a spokesman for the Church, said: ‘I guess you could say we John Sweeneyed John Sweeney. The licence fee payers in Britain are entitled to see what goes on behind the scenes. It’s about time documentary makers are held accountable.’

Sweeney has won awards for investigating miscarriages of justice against mothers of cot death victims and has reported on human rights abuses in Chechnya, Kosovo and Algeria. He has said that ‘one recipe for investigative journalism is to find the largest crocodile in the pond and give it a poke in the eye with a sharp stick and see what happens next’. This time, the crocodile bit back.

A spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology said: ‘The BBC Broadcast Codes are a sensible set of guidelines that, if followed, would result in a fair and accurate report with every piece. We documented 154 violations of these guidelines by Sweeney and his team and have presented those, with evidence, to BBC executives.’

But Sandy Smith, editor of Panorama, responded: ‘The head of current affairs, George Entwistle, has viewed all footage complained of and, with the exception of the point when Sweeney shouts, he found nothing that stood outside BBC guidelines.’

A BBC spokeswoman added: ‘When viewers watch the programme on Monday they will see the full story and the background to this particular incident. While John Sweeney’s behaviour at one point in the filming is clearly inappropriate, he has apologised. The BBC is, however, happy that taken as a whole the filming was carried out properly and fairly.’

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