It’s a cult life: through the lens of John Sweeney

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Very hungover from a party the night before, Sweeney’s first words were a warning to the front row that he may projectile vomit. Needless to say, there were a few nervous chuckles, followed by the quiet squeak of chairs slowly edging away. Coming to Oxford to do a talk for Oxford Geography Society on his book, North Korea Undercover, I managed to corner Sweeney afterwards for a couple more pints and a chat about North Korea, Scientology and life as an investigative journalist.

Sweeney first made his name at The Observer, where he worked for over twelve years, covering wars, revolutions, and chaos in more than 60 countries. Having joined the BBC in 2001, Sweeney became a reporter for Panorama, where infamy struck after his tirade with Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis in the documentary Scientology and Me.

Notoriety persisted with Sweeney’s recent undercover trip to North Korea, where he posed as an academic from LSE whilst travelling with a party of students from the university. Needless to say, critics balked at what they called the BBC’s negligence for the safety of LSE students, and even questioned whether the resulting Panorama program should be aired.

Despite criticisms, Sweeney stands by the trip. “There’s silence about North Korea; I wanted to change this. The people telling me off for reporting on it are basically policing North Korea’s own anti-journalist stance. North Korea is the darkest place I’ve ever been to and I’ve been to a lot of dark places. It’s an appalling fucking place.

“I’ve met an IRA man who actually says ‘I quite like the British these days because I’ve been to North Korea.’ That’s how bad it is. But however bleak the situation looks, it’s not an invincible regime. They simply do not have enough trade and enough food to feed their people so they have to open up their economy. However, if they open it up, the regime will fall. That’s the jam the regime is in. That’s why it’s so fundamentally unstable.” At this point, his fish and chips arrive and we pause conversation fleetingly to agree on everyone’s mutual need for another round.

“The best case scenario for North Korea at the moment is that the Chinese invade. China is a better place than North Korea. You can eat, you can drive, you can still get books, you can look things up on the internet — bad as Chinese authoritarianism is, it’s miles better than North Korea. North Korea is Scientology with nuclear weapons. It’s this weird cult thing. I brought a copy of 1984 with me when I went and left it in my hotel room like some mad Christian.”

A firm believer in the “open society”, Sweeney says his investigations into the Church of Scientology were driven by a similar “visceral fear of dictatorship and of suppression of information”. In the interview, he discusses the parallels between the two cult-like powers and their use of “brainwashing” methods for psychological control. “My start point is a fear — it’s a visceral fear — of dictatorship, of suppression of information. I’m a storyteller, and I like to tell the best stories I possibly can. And it turns out that the best stories are those which powerful people do not want told,” explains Sweeney.

Although some have criticised Sweeney for his crusading style — James Silver, for example, writer for The Guardian, describes it as “working himself up into a righteous fury while placing himself squarely at the centre of the story with a sense of self-belief bordering on arrogance” — he is adamant that the crucial thing is not the amount of controversy or litigation he receives but the difficulty of telling a good story. “We try and give a voice to the voiceless and in some way try to help them communicate their story. I don’t court controversy — I’m just trying to change something.”

“The hardest thing for me is making sure that the targets are worth turning over. I don’t want to target a nice old lady who might be a bit UKIP-y. I want to do big targets, not small targets. Putin — he’s a target. The church — they’re a target. North Korea — they’re a target.”

It was this Robin Hood quest which led him into journalism initially, and into war reporting. “I wanted to be Billy-big-balls and I was a fool. I like staying in bed and going to the pub and the only thing that makes me want to get out of bed and not go to the pub is when someone very powerful says ‘shut your mouth’ to ordinary people.”

Is there some element of story-telling in there too? “Very much so. Never confuse seriousness with solemnity. I believe very much that entertaining is a way of bringing out the awfulness of the situation by dark humour. You react to bad situations by taking the piss out of it — it’s a British thing to do, it’s the best thing about Britain.” And with this, we settle down for another pint and to talk about the time he nearly threw up on Putin.

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