Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The curse of the exploding tomato

I first heard Panorama reporter John Sweeney’s outburst as a clip on BBC's Five Live. It launched a phone-in discussion on whether it is right for a reporter to ‘lose it’.

Out of context it sounds like Sweeney lost a few things during his exposé on Scientology - apart from his temper: objectivity, the ability to appraise something dispassionately, and the ability to ensure that a topic of valid journalistic interest does not become a story about personalities. The sign of a good journalist, one might argue, is one that does not become ‘the story’.

It is clear that Mr Sweeney’s red face of anger resulted in a number of other BBC faces equally red with embarrassment. Whatever you might think of the cult of Scientiology (or should I say ‘faith’? – after all I don’t want this blog being stalked by sinister young Americans in dark suits and dark glasses), they definitely scored something of a PR hit in their battle with the Beeb. In terms of impression management, our noble corporation found itself very much on the defensive.

The use of tactics and counter-tactics in how a story is aired on one television show is all good knock-about stuff but it would be worrying if these surface-level shenanigans diverted public attention away from the genuine concerns that people have with the ‘Church’ of Scientology and its methods of ensuring that its members are not ‘corrupted’ by alternative belief systems, such as – well just about any other religion, philosophy or world view.

Sweeney regrets his performance. As a dedicated seeker of truth, he slipped up and he readily admits it. We haven’t yet heard anyone taking responsibility on behalf of the BBC itself for allowing its flagship of journalistic integrity, Panorama degenerate to sensation-seeking, tabloid television.

During my student days, some friends and I were discussing the prospect of a National Front rally that was planned for our city. Should we demonstrate against them? Shout at them? Get into a battle? In the end, we took the view that the best tactic was to laugh at them and show them that it is impossible to take them seriously. By the same token, I suspect that programmes like Have I Got News For You or Radio 4’s The News Quiz could inflict a lot more damage on the reputation of crazy cults (sorry – ‘faiths’) than any hard-hitting documentary by an angry journalist determined to expose them.

Here are some resources: the Observer’s account of the incident and discussion on investigative journalism in the age of video networking; and the BBC website’s own coverage of the story with links to clips of news reports, an interview with Panorama’s editor, Sandy Smith, and John Sweeney’s exploding tomato impression.

John Sweeney    Panorama    Scientology     BBC     investigative journalism


CultWatch said...

Don't fall in to the trap of discussing whether John Sweeney got annoyed and shouted, it is a non-issue.

The real issues that need to be investigated are all possible breaches of the law by the self-styled "Church of Scientology".

Warning: To anybody who has not come across Scientology before, enter the following search terms into your favourite search engine: "Fair Game" and "Scientology"

Finally, don't ever buy a book on Dianetics(TM), walk away.

Jeanne said...

There are a lot of views, both ways, about Scientology.
I've watched both the BBC Panorama show and the Scientology video and I have my own opinions of who's right or wrong. But I no matter what, I think as a journalist Sweeney's reaction was inexcusable. For what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

Louis Theroux does this sort of thing so much better.

Pete W said...

Big discussion on the Guardian's Organ Grinder blog...

Pete W said...

Panorama is now finding itself under scrutiny by the BBC Trust as reported in yesterday's Guardian.