Panorama editor defends Scientology documentary - Press Gazette

Panorama editor defends Scientology documentary

The editor of the BBC’s Panorama programme today defended a documentary which has led to a bitter row with the Church of Scientology, after a veteran reporter shouted at a group member.

During filming of the progamme, reporter John Sweeney lost his temper and shouted at Scientology representative Tommy Davis.

Footage of the scene (pictured) was posted on YouTube, ahead of the BBC’s broadcast of the documentary tonight.

The BBC has denied allegations that it orchestrated a demonstration against the group in which a “terrorist death threat” was allegedly made.

Panorama editor Sandy Smith today defended Sweeney’s actions.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Smith said he was showing the clip of the row because it had been on YouTube and the BBC had been criticised for it, not because they were proud of it.

Smith said he was “disappointed” with Sweeney, but added he was showing a portrait of an “extraordinary organisation” which would not accept any criticism whatsoever.

He said Sweeney had been shown an exhibition which showed torture imagery, and his interviews had also been interrupted.

While the Scientologists’ clip of Sweeney’s rage appeared on YouTube, the BBC’s own footage of Davis becoming angry has also been shown ahead of the programme.

Explaining the Scientologists’ own documentary of events, Scientology official Mark Rinder told the told the : “It became clear to us that his story was pre-written.

“He wouldn’t let the facts get in the way, so we decided to do a John Sweeney on John Sweeney.”

Smith said the church had released a video accusing Panorama of “staging” a demonstration outside one of its offices in London, including a “terrorist death threat” against Scientologists.

Smith told the Daily Telegraph that the allegations were “grossly defamatory” adding: “It is absolutely outrageous to suggest that the BBC would organise a demonstration – why would we?”

Writing a response on the BBC’s website, Sweeney admitted he looked like an “exploding tomato” during the row and had fallen into an “elephant trap”.

He wrote: “If you are interested in becoming a TV journalist, it is a fine example of how not to do it. I look like an exploding tomato and shout like a jet engine… it makes me cringe.”

While making the film, Sweeney says he was “shouted at, spied on, had my hotel invaded at midnight, denounced as a ‘bigot’ by star Scientologists, brainwashed – that is how it felt to me – in a mock-up of a Nazi-style torture chamber and chased round the streets of Los Angeles by sinister strangers”.

Describing the incident, Sweeney wrote: “Top Scientologist Tommy ‘Don’t mention the word cult’ Davis had been goading me all week, and on the seventh day I fell into his elephant trap.

“He shouted at me and I shouted back, louder.”

The row has been referred to as one of the first examples of “video ambushing” – when the subjects of an investigation turn the tables on those doing the investigating.

During the Scientologists’ footage, Sweeney emphasises his words with hand gestures, shouting: “Now listen to me!… You cannot assert what you are saying!”

Sweeney has been reprimanded by the BBC for his outburst and had apologised for his “inappropriate” behaviour.

A BBC spokeswoman said: “When viewers watch the programme 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.”