2013 Book Report 5 – Church of Fear – John Sweeney.

This is a review of the Kindle edition of this book, available for purchase here.

John Sweeney is a British journalist who became globally famous because of one incident about which he is clearly embarrassed.  As a journalist working at the time on a Panorama documentary, JS was offered access to the ‘church’ of Scientology if he would accept their terms. These were, it was felt, too onerous to be accepted, and JS set about making his documentary anyway.

For the record the terms were that he would not use any unnamed sources for quotes or interviews and that the documentary would not use the term cult about the ‘church’.

The following quickly becomes evident:

  • The production team were followed by private detectives who fed the teams whereabouts back to Scientology operatives in real time.
  • Whenever the team chose to interview anyone the ‘church’ would arrive with a dossier of dirt on the people being interviewed intent on besmirching the character of the interviewee (and noticeably not making any attempt to counter any of  the accusations being made against the church).

A number of accusations are central to the original Panorama story, its follow-up and the ‘wrapping up’ that JS does at the end of the book. They hang upon what the definition of a cult is and whether the ‘church’ meets those definitions, and whether the ‘church’ practices brainwashing as part of its cult-like behaviour.

The story of John Sweeney’s interaction with the ‘church’ is largely the story of his interaction with Tommy Davis. Tommy is a high level Scientologist who was acting as the mouthpiece of the organisation. It was he who turned up to interviews that the ‘church’ could only have  known about because they have been trailing the Panorama team to smear each opponent of the church, accusing each of being variously extortionists, liars, sexual deviants or paedophiles. The way that the same terms are echoed again and again about the various critics of the ‘church’ would be laughable if it were not so obvious that the accusations are clearly meant to be the most odious insults, goading the accused in the hope of getting a negative reaction.

It is this approach of shouting down critical voices that leads to the event that made JS famous on YouTube. And, to his credit JS doesn’t avoid the subject of his meltdown. He does take the time to frame the event in context, and reading the context I have to say I not only don’t blame him for going ‘off on one’, but I have a feeling that in the same situation I am not sure I wouldn’t have resorted to physical measures! And, I suspect that I would have done so an awful lot earlier than JS did.

The actual events revolve around a visit to a ‘museum’ which scientologists use to push their view of psychiatry. In the opinion of scientology psychiatry is the equivalent of evolution within the sphere of evangelical christianity. That is, it is comparable with, associated with and both derived from and the root of every negative in society. In a manner that shows a complete ignorance of Godwin’s Law  the scientology museum repeatedly bombards the visitor (in this case JS) with accusations that psychiatry and the Nazis are intimately connected. JS is then challenged about the contents of an earlier interview, and the fact that he keeps on using the term cult about the church.

The YouTube video is, justifiably famous. In the eyes of the scientologists JS’s meltdown (which they had two film crews of their own to film) was a victory. They clearly hoped for a propaganda hit, presumably trumpeting the meltdown while the BBC tried to bury it. But the BBC isn’t that kind of organisation, and its viewers are able to see both the meltdown and its context and I hope that for the majority of people it was an expose of the church and their methods.

You can view the video (its mirrored lots of times) by searching for ‘John Sweeney meltdown’ on YouTube. But it is worth investing the time and watching the whole programme also available on YouTube with a little more digging.

At the end of the book there is an interesting twist. Most of the damning testament against the church has come from ex-members. And there is a hint at the end of the book that Tommy Davis himself had dropped out of the church. This was tantalising, and I hope that more information will come to light in the future. Obviously the tales that Mr. Davis would have to tell would be among the most damaging of all. Whether he will ever manage to tell them is an interesting question. One of the most worrying accusations against the church is that it was happy to take the content of their own equivalent of the confessional and use it against ex-members if they left. These often contained the deepest, darkest secrets of the members, and in a trustworthy organisation would be sacrosanct. The church is self-evidently not trustworthy.

Overall, this was an excellent book. The tension of reporting, being tailed and facing up to this organisation that is clearly happy to dig up any dirt on its critics is expressed brilliantly, and the writing is always tight and to the point.

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