May 17, 2007 — -- What happens when the BBC, one of the most respected news organizations in the world, takes on The Church of Scientology, one of the most controversial religious organizations in the world? Multimedia mayhem.
Scientology is not only contentious, it's also a pillar of pop culture. A church founded by a science fiction writer, whose poster boy is actor Tom Cruise.
The battle between Scientology and the BBC began with an investigative journalist who was trying to pry open what he says is a secretive, religious organization, and now it's playing out on TV and YouTube. That's right, YouTube. Even before the BBC broadcast its documentary on "Panorama," Scientologists posted an infamous clip online.
In the clip, John Sweeney, a reporter for the BBC, engages in a screaming argument with Tommy Davis, a Scientology spokesman.
"No, Tommy, you stand down! No, listen to me! You were not there for the beginning of the interview! You were not there! You did not hear or record all the interview! Do you understand?"
And in this modern media echo chamber, the controversy over that clip made it onto the BBC as well, again before the documentary had aired.
The reporter was angry at accusations from a church spokesman that he had gone soft on a Scientology critic. But in the full clip, as broadcast later on "Panorama," he isn't the only one shouting.
"You're accusing members of my religion of engaging in brainwashing," screams an angry Davis.
Let's be clear, this is not a David and Goliath story. It's more like a celebrity death match. The stodgy vs. the slick. Sweeney, the stodgy guy who loses his cool, is an investigative journalist. He's a classic "Gotcha" reporter who clearly knows all the tricks of the trade.
The slick guy is Davis, son of actress Ann Archer and a spokesman for Scientology. He is a true believer and a dogged defender of his faith.
To be fair, Scientology has never taken criticism lightly.
"I don't know that Scientology lends itself to the press," said David Miscavige, the top Scientologist, in a 1992 interview with Ted Koppel on "Nightline."
It was the only on-camera interview Miscavige had ever given.
"Media is controversy -- I understand that -- and if you look at the big picture of what's really going on in Scientology, it is not controversial, certainly to a Scientologist," he said at the time.
What's changed since that interview more than 15 years ago is that Scientology now has a new vehicle to take on its critics.
During the making of the BBC documentary, the Scientologists followed the reporter's every footstep, even waiting for him at his hotel at midnight one day.
They even posted their own expose on YouTube. It was a full 30 minutes, complete with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.
The BBC stands by its reporter and his report. On this issue at least, the institution has battened down the hatches, apparently under siege from Scientology supporters.
"Nightline" reached out to "Panorama" for a comment, but the show declined requests for an interview. Twice the person answering the phone at the "Panorama" news desk said callers had the wrong number and promptly hung up.
The Scientologists have also requested an interview with those at the BBC. Just as Sweeney had done to them, they turned up at BBC headquarters, cameras rolling, demanding an interview with the BBC's director general.
Not surprisingly, their request was denied.
It's tough to say who comes off worse in this battle. In public relations terms, it's probably a draw. That in itself is extraordinary. In this modern age, when the BBC takes on the Church of Scientology, it's YouTube that has leveled the playing field.