The Heaven and Earth Show with Gloria Hunniford
BBC 1 (TV), 13 May 2007
[The first minute or so of my copy is missing.]
Gloria Hunniford: Scientology was founded by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s.
It teaches that humans are immortal spiritual beings known as "Thetans" and that traumatic events in past lives have created negative images in the mind called "Engrams". Scientologists use a form of counselling they call "Auditing". It involves a device called an "E-meter", designed to measure responses in the skin.
They claim that auditing helps people become more spiritually aware. In order to progress in the church, Scientologists must take a series of self-improvement courses and work to achieve a state described as "Clear", where all negative memories have been erased from the mind.
We had hoped to have a representative of the Church of Scientology with us in the studio this morning live, but they've declined to be here, and in one letter to us, suggest that this edition of Panorama was "born out of a bigoted attitude to smear and make fun of our religion."
Sandy Smith is the editor of Panorama and he's in our London studio. Thanks for joining us, Sandy. That's a pretty severe accusation, actually, from the Scientologists.
Sandy Smith: Yeah, good morning Gloria. It's a shame they're not here to make that allegation themselves.
The reason why we looked at the Church of Scientology is, there's a bit of a conundrum here. This is an organisation that judges in the past have severely criticised as you've already said. The Superior Court judge in the States described its founder as "almost a pathological liar".
For an organisation that wants to be seen on a level with traditional religions, that's a real problem and really, as the Church opened a brand new multi-million pound centre in the City of London it seemed to be a good opportunity for us to say, "Is this an organisation which is breaking with its past, which is dealing with its past in a mature way, and perhaps saying 'Yes, we're only 55 years old, perhaps we made mistakes. Perhaps in our dealings with former members who criticised that we regret, and we are going to move forward to a different level' or 'are we going to stand by what we've always said, and stick to that line'," as it were.
We set out to investigate what their strategy was as they increasingly try to move into the mainstream. So I would say that we came at it with an open mind.
GH: In hindsight, though, don't you think the way events have turned out, because I'm reading from... Actually, nearly all the papers feature it. For example, the Mail on Sunday: "Travolta's attack on BBC man in Scientology expose", accusing the BBC of bias. Then there's The Times: "Scientologists to BBC: What planet are you on?" Again, accusations of complete bias.
So, do you now feel it was the right way to approach it?
SS: I think it was the right way to approach it. I think it should be said that I'm not aware of any journalist who has done any serious investigation into Scn who hasn't been confronted with this kind of response. It's pretty standard.
We did go into it with an open mind. We went to see Scientology at their headquarters in East Grinstead. Over two days of video presentations and discussions from them. They did offer us access to people and their buildings but on conditions that we didn't find acceptable.
They didn't want anyone in the programme to call them a 'cult'. They didn't want us to interview anyone anonymously and they didn't want what they called "attackers" or former members who have criticised them, taken them to court or perhaps written about them. Now, if you want a video news release about L. Ron Hubbard or about any of their activities, they are available online or from any of their mini-outlets worldwide. Panorama is not a vanity publisher and, like any other broadcaster worthy of its name, wanted to do the programme on its own terms.
GH: On the other hand you have ended up on YouTube. The Scientologists have released a piece of film of your programme, of John Sweeney "losing it", of ranting and in fact they accuse you of missing out or breaching the BBC guidelines 157 times.
Now in order to understand the clip I'm going to show you, what kind of pressure were you under when you were making the documentary in America?
SS: When the team flew to the States, their every step was dogged by the man that John Sweeney is speaking to in the clip you're going to see: Tommy Davis. The team were followed. Representatives of Mr. Davis turned up at their hotel at midnight to harangue them for interviewing critics.
They were interviewing one critic at one point when Mr. Davis turned up in a car, sprinted across the car park and brandished the criminal record of the interviewee that John was talking to, shouting into the camera that he was a "pervert".
So, very quickly the journalistic process turned into a bit of a confrontation between these two high-spirited and passionate people; John, who, as you've seen in the clip before, believes he has the right to investigate anything that he likes, and Mr. Davis, who's a passionate defender of his religion. One of the problems, if you like, is that it quickly dominates proceedings.
Just before the clip you're going to show people, John was taken to an exhibition called "The Industry of Death" which is the Scientologists' attack of psychiatry. They work for the global obliteration of psychiatry which is something they equate with Nazism. John had been told that psychiatrists were responsible for the Holocaust. He'd been shown extraordinary images of people apparently being tortured and badly treated in many ways. This had gone on for 90 minutes.
Mr. Davis then turned on John and criticised him again for interviewing this man that they called a pervert, and John kind of lost it, and you can see that.
GH: Let's have a look at the film, so we can see exactly what we're talking about.
John Sweeney (in YouTube clip): YOU WERE NOT THERE FOR THE BEGINNING OF THAT INTERVIEW. YOU WERE NOT THERE. YOU DID NOT HEAR OR RECORD ALL THE INTERVIEW. [quiet voice] Do you understand? Do you understand? [end of quiet bit] YOU ARE QUOTING THE SECOND HALF OF THE INTERVIEW, NOT THE FIRST HALF. YOU CANNOT [end of clip]
GH: I think, one can fairly say, not the normal reaction of a reporter.
SS: Absolutely, John deeply regrets that. He feels he was lured into that situation. It's a trap he fell straight into. He apologised and the BBC don't condone his behaviour. I think her feels a fool. As I say, we don't condone that.
I think you have to see the whole film on Monday to understand the whole circumstances and the context.
GH: Talking about the people you interviewed, could you be accused of being very selective in the people you chose for the documentary, because in any society you find people who are disgruntled. So what was that process like?
SS: One of the problems was that that big missing voice in any documentary or article about Scientology is the voice of the ordinary Scientologist. I regret that we've not been able to talk to ordinary Scientologists in that way. We tried to, but everything in our dealings with them has an element of control. We were told that they had that in hand.
We were invited to what they call a Celebrity Centre, which is a specific part of their religion which is devoted to celebrities, that they put great store on. I think what they would say is that their philosophy enables you to succeed in showbiz or sport; enables you to achieve your full potential.
They put great store by celebrities, so we were invited to meet Anne Archer, Kirstie Alley and a number of other people who are, perhaps, more well known in the States. They were persuasive about what Scientology means for them. They were convincing and were important to us to balance the other voices in the film.
John would then go on to say "Some people would say this is a cult. Some people would say there is brainwashing involved." Again, they dealt with that perfectly well. It's a standard question for Scientologists and Kirstie Alley in particular was...
GH: But I understand that you've had to cut those because they've withdrawn their consent.
SS: Extraordinarily for an organisation which claims that it doesn't get a fair press, we had lawyers' letters saying that all the people we interviewed no longer want their contributions to be included. Together with the absence of the Scientology spokesman today makes it hard for them to paint themselves as the victims of the piece.
GH: Just very briefly, Sandy, because I am running out of time... With hind analysis with all this uproar that's been going on - the papers are full of it, which is going to guarantee you good viewing figures tomorrow night - have you changed your mind about the accusations, you know, years ago, as to what Scientology does today?
SS: I don't think we fully answer that question. I think until there's an open relationship between people in the Church of Scientology and the media, perhaps with different personnel. I would recommend that they change their PR strategy. But I think we don't actually answer that question.
What we show is that if you do try and ask questions, if you do talk to critics and try and weigh up the pro's and con's of this organisation, you are subjected to... I would say borderline harassment. What we've suffered is a lot less than what other productions, other reporters have suffered in the past.
It shows an organisation which isn't comfortable with itself, isn't comfortable with criticism and I think it extremely defensive. I wouldn't go so far as to say "paranoid" as the judge said, but I think it's extremely defensive.
GH: I'll certainly be watching tomorrow night. Thank you very much for joining us this Sunday morning.