Virtually no one who is a member of a cult will admit that the organization they are involved in is a cult. The word ‘cult’ is too pejorative, and associated with brainwashing and corruption for many to be willing to regard their own faith as a ‘cult’.


Some might argue that all religions are cult, while few outsiders would not think of The Moonies, or the Hare Kryshna Movement as a cult. You can see my essay defining cults at CULTS DEFINED.  Another religion that has been called a cult is Scientology, but calling them a ‘cult’ can be extremely dangerous, as reporter John Sweeney discovered in making this remarkable BBC documentary about them.


Scientology has been trying to clean up its image since the death of founder L. Ron Hubbard.  Under its new, younger, more business-minded leader, David Miscavage, the sect has been going for a slick, squeaky-clean PR image. It has focused on its (sweat it out in a sauna and receive auditing) drug rehabilitation programs, like Narconon, and its high profile attacks on the psychiatric fraternity, rather than the more crackpot notions of its beliefs, such as the claim (kept mostly to high ranking members of the cult until the case was exposed in the media) that we are really god like beings called Thetans, who were exiled on earth by an evil deity called Xenu, and now how have to regain our god-like abilities through Scientology and Dianetic auditing. The Xenu beliefs have been publicly denied and dumbed down, though many celebrities are listed as Operating Thetans of various degrees of power.

The image makeover has worked in gaining the sect the support of celebrities like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Allie, Anne Archer, etc.  The sect has also gained the support of many professional people and bodies. The cult uses its money to back Hollywood films, and provide hospitality suites for major league high profile business pundits. The opening of a new Scientology centre in London worth £millions was shown in the Panorama programme as being heavily supported by the Metropolitan Police.


Despite such a rise in power and slick image status, many still claim that Scientology is a cult. Ex-members and the families of practicing followers complain that they find themselves followed and intimidated by the sect for even daring to use the word ‘cult’ in association with the sect. 


John Sweeney set out to make a documentary examining whether such a claim as Scientology is a cult’ is still deserved or not. He was to quickly find himself subjected to being stalked and intimidated at every turn tactics used by the cult, to the point where he spectacularly loses his temper with one of the leading members of the sect, Tommy Davis - an incident that he allowed to be included in his film for Panorama by way of apology for his outburst, though given the extra-ordinary duress he faces, it is quite understandable how he reacted.


Getting interviews with ex-Scientologists and experts like the author Russell Miller, (who wrote the excellent Bare-Faced Messiah expose) prove to be relatively unproblematic. The cult dismisses this as easy and biased reporting. It is however in getting the cult to give its version of events and its own counter-case that Sweeney finds problematic. The cult wants one hundred percent focus and the dismissal of the opposing point of view before it will speak freely. Gaining interviews with practicing cultists proved to be anything but easy. The sect insisted that it would only co-operate if the word cult was not used in association with the movement, and other strident conditions were set on who could and could not be interviewed.  John Sweeney understandably declined to allow such control of his attempts to create an impartial, objective study. Pressure from the cult resulted in him having to clamp the interviews he had gained with practicing Scientology celebrities including Ann Archer and Kirstie Allie, who we see but do not hear as Sweeney asks them his questions.


The other resulting consequence is the extent to which Sweeney finds himself stalked, which is clearly extremely sinister, and virtually proves that Scientologists are maintaining their notorious ‘Fair Game’ attacks on their opponents, something they claim to have stopped doing many years ago.


Sweeney finds himself followed by various drivers as he moves around from interview to interview. He sees the same people watching him, or sitting in hotel breakfast rooms as him many times over. He then finds the deeply disturbing Tommy Davis approaching him at a hotel hired by the film crew, even though the information of their location has not been made public or available to the cult.  He will see this man many times again, in the UK, and in the US during his film making – The guy just keeps on turning up out of nowhere.  Sometimes, it seems amusing to the point of farcical, as in when Sweeney lets Davis use the BBC microphone to conduct his own interview as the man comes followed by his own camera and sound crew throughout.  During one interview the man is shouting to the cameras, ‘is anyone getting all this’, even with big BBC and Scientology production crews visibly capturing everything on sound and film.


At other times, his appearances are more worrying. At one point, he gatecrashes a sensitive interview Sweeney is conducting with an ex-cultist to read out a list of the ex-cultists alleged lifetime of crimes and controversies to discredit the man as a potential credible witness against the cult, while boasting that his own reputation is squeaky clean.  The stoicism of the ex-cultist  himself as all of this goes on is astonishing. This is a classic Fair Game tactic. If a critic of Scientology has a history of drug taking, (even a little Marijuana), homosexuality, (the cult, like its founder, is extremely homophobic) or even a minor criminal offence on record, the cult will exploit it as reason why no one should ever listen to that individual’s attacks on the cult. 


The moment you begin to publicly criticise Scientology they will begin their own investigation into your own past – they will question family, friends and even rummage through your litterbins for information about you. Few people, in the cult or outside, could have a perfectly blameless life. The cult will find something on just about anyone if it probes deep enough. Scientology seem rather keen to cast the first stone.


It is clear as the documentary progresses that the cult’s tactics towards himself is increasingly disturbing Sweeney, a brave, seasoned and respected war-reporter.  Things reach a peak when he attends a Scientology conference on a theme of the evils of Psychiatry, claiming that Psychiatry is evil and the root cause of the Holocaust.  Though there are aspects of psychiatry that deserve criticism, the Scientology led dismissal of the entire profession as evil is clearly excessive. Sweeney finds the conference itself extremely intense and as he leaves a meeting there he is approached again by. Who begins to harass him about an earlier interview with an opponent to the cult, shouting Sweeney down, and refusing to allow him to speak freely? Sweeney now blows his top, shouting and ranting loudly he, in a fashion that is very uncharacteristic of him, mainly arguing that. Is criticising an interview he was not present at throughout, (having only arrived in the middle of the discussion, uninvited).


The focus of the show has now effectively shifted in  much of the media from whether Scientology is a cult or not to whether Sweeney was over-emotive or not. It is vital that his outburst is seen in context with the cult’s extreme tactics against him throughout his filming. Most viewers are likely to be totally sympathetic to Sweeney given the pressure he is subjected to by If anything, the pressure he faces in his film-making shows the extremes and the expense the cult is prepared to go to in order to destroy the reputation of its leading critics.  I have seen such Fair Game practice in action first hand. I was attending an ex-cult member’s meeting in 1988 where the guest speaker, Margaret Singer, a respected leading anti-Scientologist, found her presentation interrupted by a man presenting flowers on behalf of her alleged lesbian lover. In fact, the flower presenter was an innocent actor who had been unwittingly hired by the cult and who genuinely thought the conference was a gay gathering.


For writing this positive defence of Sweeney’s presentation, and seeing the documentary as further proof that Scientology is indeed a cult, I realize I am risking becoming Fair Game myself.


You can read about my own cult experiences in a very different sect to Scientology at   BRAINWASHED - A CULT SURVIVOR'S TALE


© Copyright. Arthur Chappell