The church is distributing 100,000 DVDs to MPs, peers, religious leaders and other influential figures, accusing the BBC of “gross bias” in its reporting, in a bid to protect its reputation against the programme’s investigators, who spent six months probing whether Scientology is a legitimate religion.
Scientologists, who reportedly used CCTV, followed the Panorama team and regularly confronted its journalists, have also set up a website and are distributing 10,000 magazines to support the DVD.
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The centrepiece of the film is a scene in which the BBC journalist John Sweeney is shown to have “lost the plot” while visiting a Church of Scientology exhibition, “Psychiatry: Industry of Death”, which uses graphic images to attack psychiatry.
Afterwards, Mr Sweeney is confronted about his investigation by Tommy Davis, a senior Scientologist, who accuses him of giving one of his interviewees, a critic of Scientology, an easy ride.
Mr Sweeney then yells at the top of his considerable voice: “You were not there at the beginning of the interview. You were not there. You did not hear or record all the interview.” The scene has now been posted on YouTube.
“It became clear to us that his story was preconceived and pre-written,” said Mike Rinder, the church’s international external affairs director. “He wouldn’t let the facts get in the way, so we decided to do a John Sweeney on John Sweeney.”
Mr Sweeney has apologised for his outburst. “For an hour and a half they showed me these appalling images. I felt as though if I didn’t fight it they would take over my mind,” he said. “I’ve reported in Bosnia and I’ve never felt like this, but I am sorry. The moment I lost it I knew I was in the wrong.”
Panorama’s programme editor, Sandy Smith, said: “Access to the church came with conditions that were not acceptable to Panorama, such as not using the world ‘cult’, not conducting anonymous interviews and not interviewing ‘haters’ (critics of Scientology).”
Scientology, founded in Phoenix, Arizona in 1952 by science fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard, asserts that 75 million years ago a galactic warlord called Xenu rounded up 13.5 trillion beings from an overcrowded corner of the universe, dumping them on Earth before killing them with nuclear bombs. Their tortured souls have now attached to human beings and are at the root of most of the planet’s problems.
The church, has several A-List Hollywood followers, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta, who has written a letter of complaint to the BBC about the Panorama programme. Scientology claims that it now has around 120,000 members in the UK.