The Church of Scientology is trying to counter a BBC exposé by turning the cameras on the Panorama investigators and distributing 100,000 DVDs of its “findings”.
In a preemptive strike that is costing the church £30,000, it is sending copies of the DVD to all MPs and peers, religious leaders and other “influential” figures.
So determined has it been to neuter claims in the programme that it is a cult that its film makers tailed the journalists, employed CCTV and repeatedly confronted reporters.
It accuses the BBC of sharp practice and “gross bias” — and has posted footage on YouTube of the programme’s reporter John Sweeney “losing it” by screaming at a Scientology spokesman.
Even one of its biggest Hollywood names has been enlisted. John Travolta, star of Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction, has written a letter of complaint to the BBC. The church has also set up a website and is distributing 10,000 magazines to support its DVD.
The move is the latest defence employed by the church in its efforts to protect its reputation. In the 1960s L Ron Hubbard, the organisation’s founder, instituted a policy known as Fair Game, which said that all who opposed Scientology could be “tricked, sued or lied to and destroyed”.
The Scientologists have a long history of aggression towards critics. The church was accused 17 years ago of paying £100,000 to organise a worldwide “dirty tricks” campaign against Russell Miller, a Sunday Times journalist. A former church employee described how the cult had spied on Miller, harassed his friends and tried to discredit him by giving false information to the police.
The Panorama team, which denies the claims made in the DVD, spent six months investigating whether Scientology is a legitimate religion. As the investigation progressed, team members became increasingly concerned that they were being spied upon. They noted 13 occasions when they were trailed by unknown men, including one who turned up at Sweeney’s wedding. The Church of Scientology denied it had hired private detectives.
The BBC interviewed several people who had been “disconnected” by family members who became Scientologists. One gave a tearful interview about losing contact with her daughter, but three hours after the Panorama team left the house the daughter returned for the first time in nearly two years. The mother, fearful of losing contact again, pulled out of the programme.
Sweeney “lost the plot” during a visit to an exhibition called “Psychiatry: Industry of Death” in Los Angeles. He was shown a video that claimed to reveal the “barbaric” side of psychiatry, including electric shocks and brain operations. When confronted afterwards about his investigation by Tommy Davis, a senior Scientologist, Sweeney reacted with a furious and prolonged outburst.
“For an hour and a half they showed me these appalling images. I felt as though I was being brainwashed and that if I didn’t fight it they would have taken over my mind,” he said. “I’ve reported in Bosnia and I’ve never felt like this, but I am sorry. The moment I lost it I knew I was in the wrong.”
The scene forms the centrepiece of the DVD, which accuses the BBC of turning down invitations of “full and open access” to the church’s facilities and leaders. Instead, the organisation claims Sweeney set out to paint a negative picture of it.
The video shows Sweeney repeatedly questioning celebrity Scientologists including Travolta and the actresses Anne Archer and Kirstie Alley about whether Scientology involved brainwashing. It also accuses him of “stunt journalism”, including shouting “Are you a brainwashing cult?” to Travolta at a film premiere.
Mike Rinder, the church’s international external affairs director, said: “It became clear to us that his story was preconceived and prewritten. He wouldn’t let the facts get in the way, so we decided to do a John Sweeney on John Sweeney.”
Sandy Smith, Panorama’s editor, said: “Access to the church came with conditions that weren’t acceptable to Panorama, such as not using the word ‘cult’, not conducting anonymous interviews and not interviewing ‘haters’ [critics of Scientology]. In Britain the Charity Commission doesn’t consider them a religion and the Church of England has been extremely critical.”
Established in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1952 by Hubbard, a science fiction writer, Scientology claims to have 120,000 members in Britain. Few have done more to raise the profile of Scientology than Tom Cruise, the Hollywood actor.
The church asserts that 75m years ago an evil galactic war-lord called Xenu rounded up 13.5 trillion beings from an overpopulated corner of the galaxy, dumped them on volcanoes on Earth, then vaporised them with nuclear bombs. Their radioactive souls, or thetans, later attached themselves to human beings and are at the root of our personal and global problems today.