There is something slightly ironic about Scientology, a religion that likes to conduct its business behind closed doors, using one of the most visited websites in the world, YouTube, to create what can only be described as a media furore.
You have to hand it to them, the whole thing was a very clever piece of media manipulation. But then again, for such a private religion (and I am struggling not to put that word in quotation marks), Scientology has always used clever media manipulation. L. Ron Hubbard, inventor of the religion, knew he needed to recruit people to his church who had a high profile as far back as the 1950s. Celebrities becoming involved in the controversial religion gave it two things: a lot of advertising and a certain credibility amongst the masses.
The churches use of YouTube, one of the forms being heralded as a great democratiser of the media, falls in line with this media savvy attitude. Perhaps unlike a few years ago, it gave the church a chance to attack before they were attacked. It raised questions about the, well, sanity of the BBC’s journalist John Sweeney. By releasing the video above less than 24 hours before his documentary, Scientology and Me, was due to be aired it ensured that people would watch it with the preconcieved notion that The Church of Scientology was being attacked.
To a certain extent I am sure it worked. I am also sure it boosted the Panorama ratings for that Monday night. In a way, this made it a win-win situation. Well, maybe.
However, for journalism the Panorama-Scientology debacle raises some interesting dilemmas. Subjects of documentaries, articles etc no longer have to go through the media to defend themselves. They now have the ability to use attack as the greatest form of defence on their own terms, even before journalists manage to publish the offending article.
So what do the journalists of today have to do to defend themselves? In my opinion, we will have to make sure that our reporting is more accurate, more balanced and more truthful than ever before because then it will be able to stand up to an onslaught from a media savvy subject. And if it doesn’t? Well, perhaps that means you didn’t do the best, most balanced, most accurate or most truthful reporting you could have. And if you didn’t, then the subject deserves to be heard.
But then again, the subject deserves to be heard anyway. Everyone is entitled to their side of the story and the public is entitled to hear both sides of the story. So maybe we will have to work a little bit harder to make sure we are believed and that we are truthful, but surely we should have been doing that all along?
p.s. In the interests of balance, below follows a video demonstrating how Sweeney was pushed to the yelling: