Interview: John Sweeney on the Church of Fear

Earlier this year I met with BBC Panorama Journalist John Sweeney to discuss his revealing new book on Scientology and the weakness of British libel law which made it almost impossible and potentially dangerous to publish. John’s book, The Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology has finally made it into British bookshops six years after John’s first BBC Panorama investigation into the Church which featured his on-screen ‘exploding tomato’ meltdown – now a YouTube hit.

– Charles Bell


‘I like staying in bed and going to pubs. The only serious challenge to that in terms of my attention are people who do not want stories told and who will use fear and intimidation to shut people up. Instantly that gets me out of bed or out of the pub.’

John and I had a table in a cosy Victorian boozer close to the BBC’s stunning new home in West London. While John considered the ale selection at the bar, I considered his career as writer, broadcaster and successful investigative journalist. John has reported on mass graves while undercover in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and exposed the horrors occurring in modern day Belarus in another terrific book published last year. A recent Panorama, Tax Haven Twins, investigated the Barclay Brothers, owners of the Daily Telegraph, and their private island off Sark.

‘I’m only seriously interested as a journalist in telling stories which powerful people do not want told.’ John said taking his seat.

‘The Church of Scientology is a powerful organisation with some billions of dollars. They are aggressive and have a reputation for being litigious and if you investigate them they will come after you. What’s interesting about Scientology is that some say it is an edition of totalitarianism in the world’s greatest democracy and that is strange. There is a mental, psychological weirdness about that which I spend ages grappling with.’

I challenged the idea that Scientology could be totalitarian within a state such as the USA.

‘The simple test is this: I took my kids to Cuba and just as an experiment we took a taxi from the hotel to the airport and I asked the Taxi driver “What do you think of Castro?” The taxi driver replied, “Castro is a good man, but the people around him are a little corrupt.” That’s as far as he would go. When we arrived late at night in London and got a taxi form Gatwick, I asked the taxi driver “What do you think of Tony Blair?” the Prime Minister at the time, and the taxi driver replied “he’s a c**t.”

Welcome home! We’re back in a democracy, the people aren’t afraid to speak. However, if you talk to some people who clash with big money, or big organisations like the Church of Scientology, people are afraid of the consequences of speaking out. Not necessarily violent consequences but those in terms of litigation and being sued for libel – so there are still people who are afraid to speak their minds.’

In his book John describes how he was being pursued by the Church of Scientology. After his Panorama investigation, Scientology and me, he claims strangers came to his house and neighbours. I asked him if he felt threatened.

‘Not physically, no. Psychologically, yes. The Church of Scientology says that I am psychotic, a bigot and a liar, that I am quote, “the reporter from the depths of journalism hell.” A Church of Scientology blog says that I am genuinely evil. Being a mad evil bigot perhaps knocks me out of being a serious threat to them.

In life you can take your own risks but there are some things which you should be warned of and I would advise anybody who is tempted to walk into a Church of Scientology, to run. Run for your life.’

Scientology’s line on John being a psychotic bigot sounds similar to other accusations made against other critics and defectors of the Church described in John’s book. I asked John if Scientology was trying to control the discourse about itself.
‘There is a big ethical philosophical issue about the use and the meanings of words. Look at the Church of Scientology’s claim to being a religion. In America, it used not to be a religion, and then in 1993 the Internal Revenue Service, the American tax man, recognised Scientology as a religion giving it a religious shield and giving it a tax break. In Britain the Charity’s Commission say, for purposes of British English charity law, Scientology is not a religion. I think it matters what the nature of a religion is, when you say something is a religion it means for example, the media, newspapers, politicians have to give it a measure of respect.

I could set myself up the Church of Sweeneytology – there would be lots of drinking, lots of beautiful women and we’d all eat chips and bacon sandwiches. I mean it would be heaven for a bit and after a while it would be hell. But at the moment I said, ok the Church of Sweeneyology is a religion and I want tax breaks and everyone to lay off me because I’m a religion and you can’t write newspaper articles about me etc. etc. I mean how long does that go on for?’

Slightly unnerved by the idea of Sweeneytology I nevertheless play devil’s advocate and suggest that surely in a free country people can believe in whatsoever they wish?

‘There is a blog on the internet that suggests that all religions are weird and silly and play with people’s minds, and that all religions have magical stuff – some have magical elephants, some have magical babies. The Church of Scientology has a space alien Satan – so they are all the same. My reply is no, that’s wrong, because if you’re interested in Hinduism, you know about the elephant with many arms and legs – instantly you can see him when you walk into a Hindu temple. The same goes for Christianity – Christians will tell you about the baby born to a virgin mother who grew up to be a man who was crucified and who will rise again. When you walk into a Church of Scientology, they don’t tell you about the space alien Satan, Lord Xenu who apparently brought millions of space aliens to earth and blew them up with hydrogen bombs inside volcanoes the remains of which are the cause of all of humanities illness. That for me is why it fails the British test. For a religion to be treated with the respect a religion deserves it needs to be open about itself and open to all. The Church of Scientology is not open about what it believes in.’

Throughout The Church of Fear, John refers to a book by Robert Lifton in which eight tests for brainwashing are identified. Having read Lifton’s book, Bruce Hines, a former member of the Church of Scientology told John, that these tests explain why he was in the Church for thirty years. Constriction of information is the first among Lifton’s eight tests and I ask John how it is not obvious to someone that they are being controlled or brainwashed.

‘The process of brainwashing is so absolute, so weird, so inimical to free thinking that you don’t think you’re being brainwashed. Of Lifton’s eight tests, the critical one is the limitation of information. Lifton sets out an antidote for any brainwashing or cult like behaviour which is, a willingness to be open to mockery and to a sense of humour and this matters enormously to me. For example, you can take the piss out of the monarchy and people do all the time. There is this lovely moment at the beginning of the London Olympics, where the Queen takes the piss out of herself. You’ve got 007 entering Buckingham Palace smiling at the corgis and then she jumps out the helicopter with him – I love it. I can’t wait to go to Russia or China and tell some government official that the Queen of England mocked herself – will the President of China or Russia do that? Ha bloody ha…

I bought the next round and once seated back in the corner of the beautifully old-fashioned pub I asked John about the struggles of publishing his book.

‘It was a f*****g nightmare’

Recounting the experience seemed to have necessitated the immediate consumption of the strong ale.

‘We sent it to all the big publishers and they all said no. And my agent Humphrey Hunter –’

‘The man with the dog?’ I interrupted having previously read of John’s plight and eventual solution which came in the shape of one man and his dog.

‘Yes, I met this man whilst walking in a London park, he recognised me and we got chatting . Humphrey became my agent and he sent the proposal out and no big publishing firm would take it up. So Humphrey said, “I will become the publisher,” so he created a publishing house.’

I asked John why all the major publishing houses refused his book.

‘Because of British libel law. Consider the other recent book on Scientology, which I haven’t read yet because you can’t get it in the bookshops here, Laurence Wright’s Going Clear. Wright had a multi-million dollar advance, he’s been published by Knopf, he’s Pulitzer Prize winner, he’s a star and yet the book was pulled by Transworld, the UK publishers, for fear of libel. No British publisher would take on my book, but I feel so determined that I have something to say about this Church that it’s finally is out there. What that tells you is that the idea that we have true freedom of speech in Britain, compared to America, is wrong. The Church of Scientology’s lawyers have said that free speech is not an unfettered right and they’re correct about that, oh yes they are. I think people in Britain believe they enjoy free speech, unfettered free speech, and they’re wrong.

‘The American test is simple. The other side – the plaintiff – has to prove malicious libel against you, that you hate the subject of the book with a passion that is unreasonable and malicious.”

Perhaps it was the effects of my second beer and the pleasant glow of the crackling fire next to us, but John didn’t strike me as a hateful chap.

‘I used to be a war reporter and I’ve met people who kill people, people who commit mass murder, but at the same time I try to understand them and tell their story. I’m a well-travelled person who has seen terrible things, and in that sense I do not consider myself a bigot. I do not hate Scientologists.

I’m not in favour of banning things either. I think the fewer things you ban the better. I’m not in favour in banning the Church of Scientology but I would change the libel law so that the people who are uneasy about it or want to know more can read the other side of the story. That seems to be the sensible thing to do and at the moment we can’t and that’s wrong.

In the internet age, the discrepancy between American and British system means that until we have the same rigorous belief in free speech that the Americans enjoy we will suffer. And the rich people and powerful corporations will continue to prefer to sue in London rather than New York because our laws are frankly eighteenth century and the politicians don’t seem to get this.’

John Sweeney’s Church Of Fear: Inside the Weird World Scientology is £3.08 on kindle, £11.69 in paperback.


When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Scientology in the UK released the following statement:

“John Sweeney stated when he was offered access to Scientology churches and activities and our various programmes that he was not interested in anything positive, he was only looking for the negative. He has been true to his word, even staging events to create “the negative” where he couldn’t find it.

As demonstrated by the recently published Google search engine results (“What is Scientology?” was number 4 in the “What is…” category), people want to know what Scientology is. They can find out at or visit a Scientology Church and speak to a Scientologist.”