BBC Panorama - "Scientology and me"

"John Sweeney investigates the Church of Scientology, endorsed by some major Hollywood celebrities, but which continues to face the criticism that it is less of a religion and more of a cult. Some former members claim the Church uses a mind control technique to put opponents at a psychological disadvantage. During the course of his investigation, Sweeney is shouted at, spied on, visited in his hotel at midnight and chased around the streets of LA by strangers in hire cars."
-- Radio Times

This BBC Panorama programme on Scientology was first transmitted on Monday 14th 2007 and can be viewed on the BBC website. What follows are mostly links to what happened before and after the programme.

"Don't ever tamely submit to an investigation of us. Make it rough, rough on attackers all the way. You can get 'reasonable about it' and lose. Sure we break no laws. Sure we have nothing to hide. BUT attackers are simply an anti-Scientology propaganda agency so far as we are concerned. They have proven they want no facts and will only lie no matter what they discover. So BANISH all ideas that any fair hearing is intended and start our attack with their first breath. Never wait. Never talk about us - only them. Use their blood, sex, crime to get headlines. Don't use us. I speak from 15 years of experience in this. There has never yet been an attacker who was not reeking with crime. All we had to do was look for it and murder would come out."
-- Attacks on Scientology, "Hubbard Communications Office Policy Letter," 25 February 1966

It's happened before

In 1997 Channel 4 TV in the UK was preparing a biography of L Ron Hubbard as part of their 'Secret Lives' series. As transmission date approached (19th November) the Church of Scientology (CoS) made attempts to stop the programme, wheeling out their famous member John Travolta to write to Channel 4. Members of the production team alleged that they had been investigated and harassed by private detectives. The programme can be viewed here:
Video Vault (date order, scroll down).

The CoS magazine 'Freedom' devoted an entire issue to rubbishing the programme, which is still online.

Panorama is the 'flagship' BBC current affairs programme. Its previous programme on Scientology had been back in 1987, and is also in the Video Vault.

Panorama and us

"Us" is... ARSCC(UK)? Activists against Scientology? We've never really had a name. BBC Panorama first contacted us in November 2006. This was no surprise as we are sometimes approached by the UK media seeking 'both sides of the story' about Scientology. We told them our next picket was on 9th December and invited them along. As it turned out two BBC teams were there, we were being interviewed by BBC Radio One. We introduced them to each other!

We regularly hold a picket early December, this being the anniversary of the death of Lisa McPherson. The picket was filmed by Panorama but they didn't interview anyone.

Picketers on TV! gingernut, John, anon, Jens, me, Stephano

We told the BBC then that if they needed more footage we would probably hold our next picket in February, maybe later, as had been the case in previous years. This we duly did, on March 31st 2007. We fixed the date, not them. The picket was unusual in that CoS video cameras also turned up, and the BBC and CoS seemed more interested in filming each other than us!

Why am I saying this? Because the CoS has alleged that the BBC 'faked or orchestrated' our picket. As the Church of Scientology well knows we have been picketing them since 1996, around 5 times per year, and will continue to do so with or without media attention. Not that we object to publicity of course, that's what pickets are for.

The CoS anti-Panorama video (see below) refers to an Internet post shown on screen. I tracked it down, it can be found on this webpage as a comment entitled "A London Critic". The comment does not substantiate their claim.

Enturbulation in the USA

The BBC production team spent a week in March in the USA interviewing and filming, and shortly afterwards news of this began to spread around the Internet. In the week before the programme was due to be shown the CoS launched its counter offensive. A video clip showing the BBC's reporter for the programme John Sweeney shouting at Scientologists was offered to British journalists, one of whom chose to comment on it in his in-house blog:

The reaction in the blog comments section was extraordinary. Some of the weirder posts are reproduced below. Of course I cannot be certain that any of the posters are Scientologists...

"Most times when Hubbard is mentioned the media says Science Fiction Writer, which of course is about 60% true since he was also known for his adventure, western, mystery and other genre of writing [...] amongst Science Fiction fans, Battlefield Earth (the book, not the movie) is one of the best ever."

"JohnathonStone said that Bull Baiting was a form of "mind control technique". If you knew what it actually was you would laugh at his ignorance. A simple example: You sit there and try to keep a straight face, I try to make you crack up. I crack jokes, make faces, make silly noises (This is the bull baiting)."

"I'd like to know how many psychiatric advisers Panorama have on their 'team'. The Psychs hate Scientology for having exposed their continuing crimes against mankind. How better to get back at the Church of Scientology than using a popular TV program to do it."

"This stuff is easy to find, so how can an entire research team miss all that? Or maybe they didn't miss it - but who would want to attack a group that is doing so much good in the world? It doesn't say much for the integrity of the programme's producers - either that or it's time they got some new researchers! "Something really worthy of investigation and exposing that would be time better spent (if I may be so bold) is the grisly subject of psychiatry e.g. the psychiatric-pharmaceutical alliance, ECT, psychiatric fraud, the mass drugging of children, and the link between school shootings and the well-documented side-effects of antidepressants (that most, if not all, the shooters were on)."

["Since 2002, Panorama has made four programmes about the anti-depressant Seroxat: "The Secrets of Seroxat" (2002); "Seroxat: Emails from the Edge" (2003); "Taken on Trust" (2004) and "Secrets of the Drug Trials" (2007). - info from Wikipedia]

"When these investigative journalists come around with their cameras, it is to get the sound bites that fit their slant, which is given to them by their editors, which is given to them by their advertisers. Follow the money."

"A friend told me that Jeremy Vine used his position to get scientology. Look him up on Wikipedia. He is a Christian"

[Mr Vine is a regular Panorama presenter]

"Mission Earth (a dektology) series of 10 has great data that is actually being used in New Orleans to clean up the environment from Katrina by releasing the correct bacteria that eats the bad stuff. Should be labeled Science Fact I guess"

"In reference to an earlier message, not everyone on the team supports John. Seek and ye shall find..."

In response to a challenge in the comments, one of the posters put the clip up on YouTube:
and such is the power of the Internet that Panorama responded with a clip of their own, showing another confrontation in which Scientologist Tommy Davis appeared the more enturbulated:
Evidently tempers had become frayed on both sides! It was these two short clips, endlessly repeated by rolling news channels, that set off the controversy - and neither side had planned to post them! Of such things are Internet legends made.

The Church lodged an official and apparently lengthy complaint with the BBC, and famous Church member John Travolta (see above) wrote another letter: Travolta slams Panorama

The Church had compiled a DVD from their own footage which they were sending to MPs, media and other 'people of influence' in the UK. See below for links to comments by recipients! This certainly attracted media attention from the British Sunday newspapers on the day before broadcast:
The Observer
The Independent
The Times
The Telegraph

The BBC website published an article by John Sweeney. He apologised for the shouting episode, for which he had been reprimanded by the BBC, but went on to describe the problems that he had been facing and the bad impression he had gained of the CoS.
The day before transmission the BBC rolling news channel BBC24 repeatedly ran a piece showing extended versions of both clips and an interview with Panorama's Chief Editor Sandy Smith, who was also interviewed on the 'Heaven and Earth Show' Sunday Morning and wrote a piece for the Panorama webpages. BBC Breakfast News also ran on the story.

On the morning of transmission (nearly there folks!) the CoS revealed their anti-Panorama website. The Internet based critics of the CoS are familar with this kind of attack, since we have for some years had one of our own. It features a downloadable or viewable PDF of a special issue of 'Freedom' magazine and a video documentary that parallels the Panorama programme, the same one that is on the DVD.

On BBC News24 Mike Rinder, chief CoS spokesperson, was interviewed.

The Daily Mail on Monday morning had a piece by John Sweeney himself.

And that brings us to the programme itself. It can be seen at the BBC website and a transcript is also available.

Post Match Analysis: 15-16th May

Newspapers around the world picked up the story through Agencies; by Tuesday night (15th) UK time Google News had logged 208 in all. Websites about Scientology began to report rising traffic as puzzled viewers typed 'scientology' into their Search Engines.

The Guardian picked up that the Church had hinted at legal action and a possible complaint to Ofcom, the UK media regulatory body.
Media watchers reported that Panorama had done well in the audience ratings:
Media Guardian
Digital Spy

An online journalist wrote a not so friendly programme review.
The Guardian blog section asked who won? Commenters mostly thought Panorama on points.

Martin Bell, veteran UK journalist, weighed in to support John Sweeney whom he saw as working in the tradition of James Cameron.

Francis Wheen in the Evening Standard produced a good summary headlined 'This rich creepy cult has friends in high places'.

Kevin Marsh, Editor at the College of Journalism, gave his view on the Panorama webpages.

The Guardian Media Diary May 16 reported on a Church hate march outside the BBC. Well, near enough:

Giveaway given back
The Scientology folk from Freedom Television who were giving away DVD's of their documentary Panorama Exposed didn't get the best welcome of the day in a certain part of west London yesterday. The Freedom folk posted distributors outside White City underground station and all the entrances and exits to the nearby BBC Television Centre. "I was really pleased when I came out of the tube and saw these young people with giveaway bags and shiny smiles because I thought I was going to get a free breakfast," one BBC toiler tells Monkey. "When the penny dropped I just thrust the thing back ... what a cheek."

Back in vision, CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 ran a report on the show featuring interviews with Mike Rinder who accused the Panorama team of lying and ex-member Bruce Hines.

Meanwhile on YouTube, a John Sweeney impersonator appeared on Banorama.

And on it goes: 17-18th May.

Washington Post blog with many comments.

The cult of Cash Guardian comment by Ian Williams.

On 16th May Channel 7 Australia (Murdoch owned) had run a shortened version of the programme, rivals Channel 9 showing an interview with OSA ANZO PR Virginia Stewart at the same time. Channel 7 ran a followup the following night which included a visit to the Sydney Org..
On 18th May The Australian (Murdoch owned) reported on the spat, possibly another skirmish in the long running Murdoch-Packer family feud.

The Spectator magazine had a humorous article by Rod Liddle in its May issue.

In The Times, columnist Mick Hume was concerned about crusading journalists attacking religious beliefs.

The Sun, the UK's largest circulation tabloid, had a full page article by John Sweeney 18th May. Paul Bracchi, a journalist who had previously written about the CoS, covered this in the Daily Mail. An Associated Press writeup was picked up by some non-UK newspapers.

In Washington DC a gay website took a swipe at Scientology, and in Newbury a local journalist spotted that scientologist swing band the Jive Aces were booked to play.

The 'Panorama exposed' DVD

On 18th May the promised anti-Panorama DVDs began to arrive in the post. I didn't get one but a solicitor friend of mine did:

"I enclose a letter and DVD, which arrived at my office today completely unsolicited. I gather from a few fellow solicitors that they too have received similar letters and DVDs. Nothing on the face of the letter or the DVD to point to Scientology apart from the address. Sinister ******* with too much money if you ask me! Anyway given your laudable efforts to give the ****** a hard time I thought it might be of interest to you, as I have no desire to watch it."

Trawling on for bloggers that had received copies of the DVD, I later found:

A computer journalist
A Methodist Minister
A Church of England curate
A Salvation Army Officer
A Catholic priest
An Anglican parish priest
A dot com founder
A Scottish Episcopalian Minister
A Pentecostal pastor
A journalist who reported that Ofcom had received nine (9) complaints about the programme
A sad person who wrote off and asked for the DVD

Black Panorama is a single subject blog attacking the Panorama programme.

Collateral damage: 19-20th May

On the UK talkSPORT radio station 2:30 AM Sunday morning 20th May Mike Rinder and another CoS spokesperson were on a chat show. The radio host said that the CoS was donating to a childrens charity he supported.

Richard Ingrams in the Independent 19th May commented on the DVD he had received. This is worthy of note in that he has long been a critic of the CoS, mostly because as a Christian he resents their appropriation of Christian terms and symbols.

Kathryn Flett in the Observer TV review 20th May

The Scotsman ran 20th May with a reporter who had taken the Personality Test at the Edinburgh Org. In the Sunday Times TV reviewer A A Gill mentioned the Panorama programme.

The Sunday Express were following a different story. In "MPs call for tax probe into cult" their reporter looked into local tax breaks being enjoyed by CoS buildings in England despite the CoS not having charitable status.

Back on YouTube, a well known alien had submitted his impersonation of John Sweeney's rant.

The ripples spread

On the Prime Minister's website at 10 Downing Street two petitions concerning Scientology were posted. One called for the PM to block any attempt to have Scientology recognised as a religion, another for it to be banned.
Both are open for a year, but can only be signed by UK residents. There is, it should be noted, no present legislation that allows the UK government to 'recognise' or to 'ban' religions, whatever they may mean.

Birmingham Sity Council issued an advisory circular about the DVD on 23rd May having discovered that it was being sent to local schools. The CoS had previously been outed for getting Narconon's anti-drug lectures into hundreds of UK schools without any teacher realising that they were Scientology pseudoscience.

The Evening Standard 23rd May looked at an art gallery owned by a Scientologist who was allegedly using it to promote his beliefs: Scientology sect 'using British art as a front'.

The Brighton Argus 24th May, local paper to Saint Hill and a consistent critic of the CoS, reprinted the Daily Mail article by Paul Bracchi (above) but hardened it by saying 'cult' several times.

The BBC's website ran "The church regarded as an 'evil cult'" 1st June:

...newly released government files from the National Archives at Kew show controversy surrounding the church in the UK is nothing new.
In the 1960s and 1970s officials debated whether or not to lift a ban on foreigners entering the UK to work or study at the church.
In the documents, high-ranking mandarins refer to the church as "evil" with some describing it repeatedly as a "cult".

On 16 june 2007 Panorma ran an update show covering several programmes with a short segment on Scientology, which conveniently wraps up this page.


Shortly after the Panorama programme aired Mike Rinder left the CoS. For two years he remained silent, but in June 2009 he gave a long interview to the St Petersburg Times which included his account of the Panorama affair:
In March 2007, David Miscavige assigned Rinder to get the BBC to spike a story it was preparing. A reporter and film crew had been to Los Angeles, asking pointed questions about Miscavige. Rinder followed them back to the UK.
Working out of church offices in North London, Rinder wrote network executives, asking to meet. He camped out at BBC offices.
On March 31, he intercepted the reporter at a church test center. A church videographer stood by. Blocking the doorway and face to face with the reporter, Rinder repeatedly denied allegations Miscavige abused his deputies. "It's rubbish," he said.
The story aired May 14, but it did not expose Miscavige. Rinder was relieved.
But Miscavige still was furious with him. The first week of June, Rinder says, the church leader wrote that he was to be sent to a remote part of Australia. And a manager in the London office told Rinder that Miscavige had phoned to say that first he was to report to the church's facility in Sussex, England, and dig ditches. He was not to return to the United States.

More to come!

Mostly likely a webpage will be added to cover the 28th September 2010 Panorama Special on Scientology.

Other websites with pages covering the programme:

On the Scientology Critical Information Directory

On the Scientology in the UK Media website.

Finally a word of thanks to the many Internet people who have been recording and posting onto YouTube, scanning newspapers and collecting all this stuff.