The scientologists have done us a service. Their rebuttal campaign aimed at John Sweeney’s Panorama investigation is a foretaste – a particularly well-funded and well-produced foretaste – of the feedback firestorm beginning to engulf all of Big Journalism.
Good. Journalists and audiences have to get used to the new world.
The story so far. The latest Panorama (which you can click here to watch) began life as a John Sweeney investigation into Scientology. It’s not the first time Panorama have been here; they looked at the religion in 1987. Many of John Sweeney’s allegations were familiar, though his evidence was more up to date and more compelling.
But the film turned into a report on a report on a report. Panorama put a reporter, producer and crew into the field; the scientologists did the same… Panorama looking at Scientology’s methods and mores, Scientology looking at John Sweeney’s methods and mores.
The result; a Panorama film that told the story of a Panorama reporter’s reaction to the scientologists’ mirror. And a little bit about the scientologists too.
In the end, (depending on your point of view) either John Sweeney cracked or, as he explained it in the programme, he asserted his authority, leaning heavily on a prior thespian persona in “Oh What a Lovely War” (Joan Littlewood, you have much to answer for). Either way, he shouted a lot and links to the clip of 'the moment', posted to YouTube by a scientologist blogger, spread through e-mail networks faster than Staph A on a lukewarm Petri dish.
And the scientologist onslaught was multimedia; they handed out copies of their counter-film to BBC staff on Monday morning and posted it on an elegant and well-designed website which broadened the attack onto the BBC in general.
This is how it is now and will be more so in days to come. And it's not a bad thing for Big Journalism. OK, so not everyone in journalism's many audiences has the resources, time, commitment and Tom Cruise/John Travolta on the books. But almost everyone has a mobile phone, a digital camera, the ability to record audio, blog, join networks... do much more to just tell the editor what they think of the journalism they use or experience.
And if you doubt the power of the audience... look what happened to Eason Jordan, Dan Rather and Judith Miller.
It's uncomfortable... IF you're used to the old one-to-many lecture that journalism used to be. But the reason it's to be welcomed is that it will improve journalism; perhaps even raise our trust in what journalists tell us.
After all, if the argument for investigative journalism is that things done in the light are done with more integrity and accountability than things done in the dark... then the argument for investigating journalism - for audiences and those journalism puts in the news to investigate journalism - is unanswerable. Journalism that has integrity and honesty in the first place has nothing to fear.
Postscript: one of the many other features of this new world is the maxim - 'nothing is ever finished, it's just the latest version'. Within hours of the 'Sweeney moment' being posted to YouTube this 'tweaked' version joined it.