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Improving journalism

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 12:39 UK time, Wednesday, 16 May 2007

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.

sweeneyj_203pa.jpgIn 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.


  • 1.
  • At 05:51 PM on 16 May 2007,
  • Henry wrote:

It seems to me you don't care at all about Bush's victims, past present and future. You don't care about the murdered Iraqi children, you don't care about the tortured Afgani fathers, you don't care about the scared Iranian families. You just don't care! Are you even alive? Do you not have a brain and a heart that tells you honesty, truth, and justice is important? What is WRONG with you?

Because, if you were alive, and if your brain was functioning, you would understand that "Improving journalism" starts with pointing one's attention to the issues that really matter. 911 Truth is today's most pressing concern. When 911 Truth is realized on a massive scale, the "war on terror" ends, the covert criminals go to prison, and the healing begins.

But, hey you still have a job!, so why would you care about life's miracle?

  • 2.
  • At 06:02 PM on 16 May 2007,
  • Susanna wrote:

Hi there.
I work in journalism, and have just received a DVD and an accompanying letter from "Freedom TV" which I can only assume is a scientology organisation, railing against the practices of the BBC. I assume that such packages have been sent out, at great cost, to all members of the media.
It's frightening how violently scientologists have reacted to the BBC's investigations, and the developments of the past month only serve to indicate the fundamental, bigotted nature of the religion.

  • 3.
  • At 07:42 PM on 16 May 2007,
  • name wrote:

The BBC and Scientology have one thing in common: they cannot handle criticism. Scientology uses lawyers. The BBC refuses to put up comments or stops comments from being submitted.

  • 4.
  • At 07:48 PM on 16 May 2007,
  • Sam wrote:

I have to say having been following the Madelaine story on the BBC i would like to complain on the strongest possible terms.

In Portugal i gather that in law you cannot name a suspect to the press during a investigation and i assume this follows to the Portugese press also.

So why the hell have the BBC continuously named the suspect? Saying that although the police have refused to say you know it is this man.

How can you justify that? Ever heard of innocent until proven guilty? How is you naming him against the Polices wishes helping anyone other than yourselves?

I think that in law it is very right to have anonmynity until porven guilty is it only fair what possible argument if there against that?

IE: how would you feel if you were wrongly accused of paedophilia and larer cleared but during that time had your name splashed across the world by the BBC? Don't you care what that can do to someones life?

  • 5.
  • At 08:09 PM on 16 May 2007,
  • jack maclean wrote:

A sanctimonious bully got a taste of its own medicine. I've no time for the cult of scientology but they are at liberty to make a story of the story. A welcome template to reign in the Aunties future slavering ideological excesses. 'Your Tube' has put the a 'means of inculcation'in the hands of others to be as unfailling in their pursuit of disinterested 'truth'as the BBC's(middling)intelligensia would have their funders at large believe.
In spite of the english spirit of Chamerberlain running deep and true at Wood Lane,one would nevertheless, like to think that it was contrived as a backdoor raid on Islamism, but seeing that the Ed is as happy to describe Scientology in their own terms as a 'religion' as barking Sweeney was determined to vex them with 'cult', that will have to wait for another day(lol).

  • 6.
  • At 08:33 PM on 16 May 2007,
  • Steve wrote:

The editor of Panorama, Sandy Smith said.

"I'm very disappointed with John, and he's very disappointed."

Really? I suggest you go out any try to investigate Scientology yourself. I wouldn't be surprise if you ended up in a fist fight. Just look around youtube and see some of the provocative psychological tactics they use. If you are really going to investigate them you are going to have to be very sneaky indeed.

  • 7.
  • At 02:21 AM on 17 May 2007,
  • Bugs Raplin wrote:

That's a positive view Kevin, but not one that works for me sadly.

The Panorama in question was barely journalism by the time we watched it and that is solely the fault of the uber-paranoid subjects of the piece. These kind of actions won't democratize journalism, but will merely shift power toward those able to spread a message as widely as the journalist. Fine for S*ientologists, less fine for you or me.

Also, why should I HAVE to "do much more to just tell the editor what I think of the journalism I use or experience" anyway? If I had a story to break or report, I'd do it. But i'll be damned if I believed I have the right to meddle with another journalist's perspective just because I don't agree. A journalist should be able to report unfettered by a deluge of contrary opinion from bloggers and vod-jockeys... We are NOT all journalists now...

a wider point. have just watched the jane hill piece on news 24 about the madeleine abduction. Many issues. her use of english is apalling. why use pictures of a reporter meandering around town instead of relevant pictures of the search/investigation. shame to pick out her piece since many other items are the same. plea for the return of a properly edited item with relevant pictures and lets skip pix of 'jane reporting live' we can all do that.

  • 9.
  • At 10:49 AM on 17 May 2007,
  • Vicky Stiles wrote:

"...the Aunties future slavering ideological excesses." jack maclean

So they're going to be in the future? That explains why I've not seen any up to now then. Thanks.

Don't you biased-bbc types ever get bored of posting the same rant over and over, regardless of how rational, self-critical and accommodating the original blog is? It must be frustrating to spend your life punching something that's too sensible to hit back.

John Sweeney deserved the metaphorical kick in the teeth. I agree: all the hallmarks of a sanctimonious bully, no better than the Scientologists he was trying to debunk. TV journalism is extemely suspect at the moment. Right now the BBC is, essentially, hounding an almost certainly innocent person in Portugal and then they have the temerity and grotesque insensitivity, to ask why he's upset!And why? Because he was arrested by the police! Big Deal. How many people have I read about who have been arrested by the police on the basis of absolutely nothing - the Hamiltons for example accused of kidnap and rape while playing bridge at the time! This creeping cancer of intellectual dishonesty is even infecting radio where the object of the exercise is not to report the big story of the day but to hype up or exaggerate the story of the day. Jeremy Vine is the guilty one here. Gone are the intelligent, measured, searching questions of Jimmy Young days. Now we speak people-speak. The New Reporting is like New Labour trying to pander to the prejudices of its perceived audiences instead of trying to enlighten them or elevate them with stimulating, relevant questioning. And what have we got at the end of it all? TV news mediocrity. When was the last time I hear a celebrity newsreader ask the kind of instantly obvious questions we ask all the time sitting at home or in the pub?

  • 11.
  • At 09:17 PM on 17 May 2007,
  • JourniGrad wrote:

As a journalism grad, I see that purporters like John Sweeney--and the "smear-the-SoBs" assignment handed him months in advance by editor Sandy Smith--are the reason journalism is failing in its basic ethical duty: to dispassionately inform.

In the USA, most media re in the pockets of big-money advertisers like Big Pharma, so Scientology's anti-Ritalin-et-al. campaigns earn them bad reviews from penny-peckish assignment editors.

One might hope that a less dependent BBC would prove more fair and balanced.

Well done, Mr. Marsh. You're a good start. Can they put you in charge of hiring?

  • 12.
  • At 10:34 PM on 17 May 2007,
  • Phil Macrack wrote:

I'd have smacked that mouthy $cientologist in the kisser.

  • 13.
  • At 10:56 PM on 17 May 2007,
  • Dianne wrote:

' 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. '

So then you surpress the Balen report and make sure the ensuing court case gets no publicity.

When is somebody going to investigate you lot?

  • 14.
  • At 11:01 PM on 17 May 2007,
  • Goblin wrote:

Scientology is doing noone a favour, but sadly the BBC has done it a great favour with the Panorama programme, it has given it a voice and the sympathy vote. Many investigators who have no intention of "muck racking" have hit a wall of silence from Scientology, and themselves then been "fair game" and had as John Sweeney did investigators follow them, it is not the sort of responce a rational and good natured religion would act, and unfortunately you gave them the opening into the UK television consiousness they needed so dearly.

An interesting take – but I don't see it as all good. There's a reason America's founders wanted to insulate the government from the whim of the masses (what they considered mob rule). Public tastes can shift with the wind, and if this trend continues, reporters will only pander themselves to what they think popular opinion will be to avoid causing offense. It will become harder for journalists to engage in the type of hard-nosed reporting that we needed, say, in the run up to the war in Iraq.

  • 16.
  • At 02:09 AM on 18 May 2007,
  • Ian Burnett wrote:

John Sweeney said: "If you are interested in becoming a TV journalist, it is a fine example of how not to do it. I look like an exploding tomato and shout like a jet engine ... it makes me cringe."

Bad example of journalism? Cringe? Really? One bloke and a camera crew venture out to a foreign land to dig deep into an international cult (I'm going to use the word), despite the fact they are well aware this will cause themselves and their families major hassles. Since when has going for the story regardless of own personal comfort "bad journalism"?

Apart from the reports from war zones in the middle-east, this sort of journalism has been missing for a while. All the "high radiation is killing us", "impending ecological disaster", "yet another MP scandal", and "bad patient care" stories are pretty-much hands-off. Not since Roger Cook got a kicking every week in the 80's, have I felt such relief that I'm sitting watching instead of presenting.

So John lost his rag for 30 seconds. So he shouted at someone a bit. So what? Ooooh, scary. The whole point of all the overt surveillance and constant harrasment was to provoke this. Unfortunately he succumbed, but find me someone who wouldn't: don't forget that the Scientologists appear to be highly experienced in knowing just which mental buttons to push.

John has done a service in producing this. If just one family avoids having their life ruined through a "disconnect" then surely it's been worth it?

And so you are quite correct. I like one of your last lines: "Journalism that has integrity and honesty in the first place has nothing to fear."

Sweeney clearly was quite bigoted and clearly had a dishonest agenda to begin with in his "investigation" into Scientology.

  • 18.
  • At 09:01 AM on 18 May 2007,
  • Sam Mitchell wrote:

The BBC finally received a bit of its own medicine. Is the BBC a cult or a religion? is it a despotic regime? does it expose the intricate network of cronyism between its movers and shakers. Has it spent the same amount of criminally imposed tax liability (license FEE) to look into the nepotism between Westminsters elite/civil servants/advisors. I wonder why not.

  • 19.
  • At 10:45 AM on 18 May 2007,
  • merle wrote:

I wonder if 'trickle down' journalism is the way forward. It depends on enough of the Big Journalism players allowing enough of the little people in through the hallowed portals. I've tried hard to join the BBC 'feedback firestorm' myself, but find myself thwarted by your gatekeepers, more often than not.
Rather than submit my two cents' worth of 'feedback' to Big Journalism's Big Favour Blog Fest, I prefer to read the work of truthful, investigative, muckraking members of the Fourth Estate who have the cajones to pursue the facts and weed out the lies.
Public distrust for traditional news has increased, for a reason. Western media amplified mendacious political statements in the build-up to the Middle East wars. Pre-packaged news with a narrow remit becomes boring and obvious. People who've been lied to tend to turn away. Now it's a growing trend too powerful to stop. I urge you to read Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair's new book 'End Times - The Death Of The Fourth Estate' - not least for its expose of ''in-bed' journalists who pose as the real thing'.

  • 20.
  • At 11:26 AM on 18 May 2007,
  • Andrew Wimble wrote:

My initial impression after seeing the clip was that it was a story of a reporter losing his cool and acting in a totally unprofesional manner. After watching the full Panorama I changed my mind. After putting up witht he constant rudeness and harassment from Scientology representatives prior to the incident I think the fact that the reporter only shouted showed a great deal of restraint.

  • 21.
  • At 12:15 PM on 19 May 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

I can hardly blame BBC editors for not wanting to publish comments which clearly point up their own lack of journalistic professionalism. It comes as no surprise. After all, it is just one more sypmtom, one more point of evidence which adds fuel to the argument.

  • 22.
  • At 05:51 PM on 20 May 2007,
  • Ethan Cleary wrote:

I disagree with the first poster, 'name'. I think the BBC has posted everything I have every commented on. There will always be censorship though, I have tried to post on the Daily Mail website countless times and I think they have only posted two comments in over three years of trying to get my opinion across. Media these days seems to be as nonobjective as possible. They seem to tell us what they want us to think and it only seems to be getting worse. As a European who has lived in America I can say that we are actually lucky that we are so well informed compared to the 'news' that they get over there. Who knows where we are headed. Seems as though George Orwell was ahead of his time.

  • 23.
  • At 09:11 PM on 20 May 2007,
  • Paul wrote:

Good on you john, its great to see this kind of reaction, we are all human. to let a bit of hot air out on the box shows how frustrating life can be, even as a reporter. so come on show us how human the bbc can be. its real, much better than all those dreamy drama's you the beeb show. :)

  • 24.
  • At 03:47 AM on 21 May 2007,
  • Steven Dorif wrote:

I agree that it is a good thing. For too long journalism has been sheltered from the same scrutiny and criticism that other areas of politics suffer (yes, I said politics).

I'm no defender of politicians, but many journalists make M.P.s look like angels.

I believe that journalism has become so corrupted, in its purpose, that it has become a danger to democracy.

It isn't that all journalists are dishonest, though hyperboly is a prerequisite for the job, it is the culture of competing to present evermore 'entertaining' news.

There are never problems anymore always catastrophes, never confusion alwasy chaos, no industry suffers difficulties it is always a crisis. It seems no molehill is too small to be built into an Everest of controversy.

When anyone with clout points out press unfairness, it is immediately jumped on as an attack on 'our wonderful free press', ordinary folk who complain are sick of being ignored.

Where is there we can go to get a balanced presentation of the facts? Nowhere I know of, most papers are politically biased and it has become the trend for broadcast news organisations to see their job as opposing the Government.

The number of reports that fail to place the subject in context or simply add a throwaway sentence as a token to context, seems to be growing daily.

It's about time journalism was dragged into the real world.

  • 25.
  • At 07:06 AM on 22 May 2007,
  • vida wrote:

The official 911 narrative unravels further each day. How are BBC journalists going to handle it? "Your countrymen have been murdered and the more you delve into it the more it looks as though they were murdered by our government, who used it as an excuse to murder other people thousands of miles away.
If you ridicule others who have sincere doubts and who know factual information that directly contradicts the official report and who want explanations from those who hold the keys to our government, and have motive, means, and opportunity to pull off a 9/11, but you are too lazy or fearful, or ... to check into the facts yourself, what does that make you?"
Full Statement of Lt. Col. Shelton F. Lankford, US Marine Corps (ret)
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Fighter Pilot
February 20, 2007

  • 26.
  • At 12:38 PM on 22 May 2007,
  • liam wrote:

There's one reason why we should all appreciate what the bbc do whether we like it or not, and thats commercial TV!

The 'report on a report on a report' was actually a brilliant piece of journalism. It revealed the inner truth of a "religion" that is yet to come to terms with criticism. What John did may seem out of turn - and yes, it most likely was - but watching the whole programme shows a totally different side to the story and what actually led up to the event.

When I look at piece's of journalism like this I always wonder if I should still try to become a journalist when I, finally, leave school.

Kevin - great article. Shock, horror! - it looks like some of the commenters have only seen the Panorama Programme but not Scientology's response documentary that shows what went on behind the scenes called "BBC Panorama Exposed"! It can be seen here - along with 2 hilarious John Sweeney parody videos and even a downloadable John Sweeney ringtone! That Scientologist blogger you speak of who originally posted the clip to YouTube...I confess, it was me! johnalexwood

This had to come.

The fact is that web 2.0 has changed the monopoly on news. I wrote a couple of posts about it on my blog.

This episode will go down the story books as a lesson for the major media corps.

It's only fun that the BBC would be the ones posting about it.

Well someone has to save the face.

  • 30.
  • At 11:18 AM on 09 Jun 2007,
  • mel wrote:

Mr Marsh, allow me to extrapolate. You say: "Journalism that has integrity and honesty in the first place has nothing to fear." Your colleague Richard Sambrook was present at talks on 'transparency, ethics and integrity in the media' at the 14th World Editors Forum in Cape Town last week.
I wonder whether you, Kevin Marsh, as a representative of the BBC, are able to stand by the 'integrity and honesty' of the journalism of your colleague Guy Smith, producer of the BBC documentary '911 Conspiracies'.
'We are all conspiracy theorists at heart ... (they) are located deep within us all. We are all storytellers,' says Smith. One might argue this this is all very well, but what has it to do with the facts?
'I've just spent the best part of nine months investigating the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the al-Qaeda attacks on 11 September, 2001,' says Mr Smith. Really?
If Mr. Smith had brought true investigative skills to bear upon the events of 9/11 he might have learned something truly useful, but as you can see from his introduction, he spent nine months investigating the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the al-Qaeda attacks on 11 September, 2001 -- in other words he set off from the official narrative and spent the next nine months fleshing out this dominant discourse - failing to call upon the expertise of even one of 200 highly qualified physicists, engineers and academics who oppose the official narrative (Scholars for 911 Justice). Instead, an X-Files scriptwriter is proferred as an 'expert'.

Guy Smith descended into a world of falsehood with his documentary and the BBC went ahead and screened it. The BBC's Journalism College has presumably endorsed this work. According to the GuySmith/BBC premise, 911 is an open and shut case. Case Opened: 9.15am on 9/11/2001 when two airliners slammed into WTC; Case Shut: around 11am when Osama's face flashed onto millions of tv screens. Any alternative to this narrative constitutes quaint storytelling by neurotics huddled around the fire as grizzlies circle in the darkness.

Do you, Kevin Marsh, contend that Guy Smith's work represents good, solid investigative journalism, rooted in integrity and honesty worthy of the BBC?

Personally I'm very glad that the Internet exists. It gives the little guy the chance to fight back when he is slimed by Big Journalism, as you so aptly call it. What Sweeney did was a hatchet job and anyone viewing the rebuttal video will clearly see that.

"The scientologists have done us a service," you say and I agree. But I think your post should have put more attention on how the rebuttal video clearly showed Sweeney's violations of the BBC's own code of ethics and of basic journalistic integrity. Each violation is carefully documented and demonstrated in the video.

You say: "But the reason it's to be welcomed is that it will improve journalism; perhaps even raise our trust in what journalists tell us." Trust in what journalists tell us will only increase if disciplinary actions are taken by media corporations, such as the BBC, when people like Sweeney blatantly violate the written code of conduct of the company they are doing the story for. If journalists are allowed to get away with hatchet job reporting then trust in "Big Journalism" will continue to decrease and a new source of trustworthy news will eventually take its place.

  • 32.
  • At 06:09 PM on 09 Jun 2007,
  • Milla wrote:

It is very interesting John Wood's comment, because that was exactly what I went through. When I first watched the You Tube video, my first reaction was – Oh my God! What on Earth has been DONE TO this poor guy that made him react so wildly! Then I saw Swenney's "investigative report" and I thought – Well, this is definitely an over-reaction, this is ridiculous, could be as well be one of the Simpson's show! And then, of course, I watched the Freedom Mag's video John mentions in his comment and there it was! Then everything made sense! I think that once in a while it is a very sane habit to "look, don't listen..." And sometimes, you need to really take a good look and hopefully, you will end up seeing something. Very good article, Kevin. Thanks for posting it.

Your take on this is original, refreshing and very accurate. After watching the horrendous bias and lack of journalistic standards of Sweeney and his editor, that a BBC journalist would acknowledge this on the BBC site gives me some faith that all may not be lost.

  • 34.
  • At 03:53 AM on 08 Jul 2007,
  • Simon wrote:

John Sweeney !!!!

I don't see any credibility in this person at all ! It doesn't reflect the journalism at all.

  • 35.
  • At 11:47 PM on 15 Sep 2007,
  • Rod Rogers wrote:

I would like to add my support to the above criticism of Guy Smith and his film about 911 that passed as journalism. The bias throughout this film is clear. When he should have been interviewing the 911 truthers he actually wasted lots of time showing footage of their homes, casually taking the tour of one's living room and finding out about the history of another's favorite laptop. The amount of time dedicated to interviewing these individuals was too small in the first place to be called balanced. 13 so called 'experts' were interviewed to 'debunk' the conspiracy theories without giving the exponents of the theories enough time to elucidate the theories themselves. A balanced and unbiased account this was not, more like a piece of un-investigative journalism.

The BBC is funded by the public, yes - but who actually runs it? The board of directors - and who knows what little secrets they may have.

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