John Sweeney (journalist)

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John Sweeney
John Sweeney.jpg
Sweeney in 2014
John Paul Sweeney

(1958-06-07) 7 June 1958 (age 64)
EducationBarton Peveril Grammar School
Alma materLondon School of Economics
Occupation(s)Journalist, Writer
Years active1996–

John Paul Sweeney (born 7 June 1958) is a British investigative journalist and writer. He worked for The Observer newspaper, and the BBC's Panorama and Newsnight series. Sweeney ceased working for the BBC in October 2019.


Sweeney was educated at Barton Peveril Grammar School,[1] a state grammar school in Eastleigh, Hampshire, followed by the London School of Economics.[2]

Investigative journalism[edit]

Barclay brothers suit[edit]

In 1996, Sweeney was sued for criminal defamation in France by the Barclay brothers, owners of The Daily Telegraph, but the claimants lost their case. At the time, Sweeney worked for the rival newspaper The Observer, and had given an interview on BBC Radio Guernsey alleging that they had been involved in corruption.[citation needed] The claimants justified their legal claim in the French courts on the basis that the broadcast could also be heard in a small coastal part of northern France, although this was widely considered forum shopping. Sweeney was ordered to pay €3,000 by the appeal court in Rennes, France.[3]

Career at the BBC[edit]

Sweeney appeared on the BBC arts programme, The Late Show when he filmed behind the scenes footage of the campaign of the 1992 United Kingdom general election.[4][non-primary source needed]

Sweeney worked at the BBC from 2001 to 2014 as a staff reporter for flagship news programme Panorama,[5] but subsequently continued to be involved in producing BBC Panorama programmes.[6][non-primary source needed]

Sweeney ceased working for the BBC in October 2019. Shortly before his departure, the Press Gazette reported that "[Sweeney] was secretly filmed speaking with a source over drinks who turned out to be an ally of [Tommy] Robinson". Panorama later apologised on Sweeney's behalf for "offensive and inappropriate" comments made during the encounter.[7]


After formally joining the BBC in 2001, Sweeney reported on mass graves in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe for the BBC in 2002. By then Mugabe had banned BBC reporters from the country, forcing Sweeney to hide in a car boot to travel to a meeting with the leader of the opposition.[8][non-primary source needed]

Cot death investigation[edit]

Sweeney spent four years investigating the cases of Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Donna Anthony, three women who had been falsely imprisoned for killing their children. Sweeney's investigation helped to clear their names, and led to Sir Roy Meadow, the expert witness whose testimony had proved decisive in their convictions, being temporarily struck off the General Medical Council's medical register. Sweeney received the Paul Foot Award in 2005 in recognition of his work.[9][non-primary source needed]

Investigative report on Scientology[edit]

John Sweeney talking about his book "Church of Fear" at Leeds Sceptics

"Scientology and Me", a Panorama investigation into Scientology written and presented by Sweeney, was aired on BBC One on Monday, 14 May 2007. Prior to its airing, video footage filmed by the Church of Scientology was released on YouTube[10] and on DVD that showed Sweeney shouting at Scientology representative Tommy Davis during a visit to the Citizens Commission on Human Rights's exhibition "Psychiatry: An Industry of Death". The clips were sections of a documentary the Church of Scientology's Freedom Magazine TV produced about the BBC Panorama programme.[11][12][13]

Sweeney wrote that he lost his temper due to days of harassment by Davis and the Church, and a strong personal reaction to the psychiatry exhibition. He had been visited at his hotel by Davis, despite not having shared the address with the Church, and had been followed on several different occasions.[14][non-primary source needed] Sweeney labelled the clips "attack videos" and others say they were produced to discredit him and the documentary.[15]

The BBC in response aired its own full recording of the incident.[16] Panorama's editor Sandy Smith explained what happened and how the BBC dealt with the incident in a post on the BBC's Editor's Blog.[17] An internal BBC investigation found that Sweeney's conduct at one point in the filming was clearly inappropriate, but also said that Sweeney had apologised for his outburst and concluded that as a whole, filming of the documentary had been performed in a proper and fair manner.[18][19] Later on that same year in the BBC Panorama year in review Sweeney said "..a new generation is making up its own mind, and for that I make no apology". Sweeney went into a similar outburst in January 2009 when being interviewed on Radio 4 about the Tom Cruise film Valkyrie—clearly referring to the episode two years previously, as a part of a rehearsed joke.[20][non-primary source needed]

A follow-up Panorama programme also hosted by Sweeney, which at an hour is twice the length of the original one, was aired on 28 September 2010. This documentary contained interviews with high-profile ex-scientologists Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun. Rinder explained the tactics used by the church during the making of the previous documentary, while Rathbun primarily discussed the allegations of David Miscavige assaulting other members of the church. Rinder had been involved in the Scientology organisation's stalking of Sweeney.[21][non-primary source needed]

North Korea Undercover[edit]

In an undercover visit to North Korea, Sweeney posed as an academic from the London School of Economics whilst travelling with a party of students from the university, also including Sweeney's wife and another BBC employee. The BBC was accused of putting students at risk and of compromising the future ability of the university to pursue studies in other countries with strict regimes.[citation needed]

The BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee investigated the complaints against the programme makers, and found that "the BBC failed to ensure that all the young adults Panorama travelled with were sufficiently aware of any potential risks to enable them to give informed consent. This was a serious failing, and the BBC is right to apologise to the complainants." They also found that Sweeney's wife, who was the trip organiser and tour leader, had a conflict of interest which was compounded when she became employed by the BBC for the programme.[22][23]

Subsequently, a public statement signed by six of the 10 LSE student participants on the trip said that "We feel that we have now been put in more risk than was originally the case, as a result of the LSE's decision to go public with their story".[24] They also indicated that they had no objection to the broadcast of the BBC Panorama documentary and that they were satisfied with how the BBC handled the trip. An LSE spokesman denied this.[25][26] The programme was watched by 5.06 million people making it the number 1 show in its time slot and the second most watched show of the night.[27]

The programme formed the basis of a book, North Korea Undercover, published in November 2013.[28]

Fake Sheikh: Exposed[edit]

Sweeney was the presenter of a controversial Panorama about the ex News of the World undercover reporter Mazher Mahmood called "Fake Sheikh: Exposed". The Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, wrote to the BBC asking them not to show it in case it prejudiced any future trial, and Mahmood unsuccessfully tried to get an injunction to stop Panorama broadcasting recent video of him with no disguise. The broadcast was twice delayed and was finally transmitted on 12 November 2014. Following the programme the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would reinvestigate 25 cases where people were convicted on Mahmood's evidence.[citation needed]

Trump: The Kremlin Candidate?[edit]

Sweeney presented the documentary he researched and investigated, Trump: The Kremlin Candidate?, first broadcast for Panorama on BBC One on 16 January 2017, four days before the Inauguration of Donald Trump. Exploring links between Trump associates and Russian officials and Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections, the documentary was well received by The Guardian,[29] Radio Times,[30] The National,[31] and the Times Union.[32] The documentary was screened in Perugia, Italy on 6 April 2017 at the International Journalism Festival.[33][34][35] Investigative journalists Sweeney and Andrei Soldatov of Russia were in attendance at the screening.[33][36][37]

Tommy Robinson[edit]

On 23 February 2019, about 4,000 people protested outside BBC offices in Manchester against one of Sweeney's planned Panorama episodes on activist Tommy Robinson, who also led the protest. During the rally, undercover filming of Sweeney, obtained from a supporter of Robinson, was shown on a large screen. In the film, Sweeney is heard making a number of remarks which were described by the activist as being racist, homophobic and anti-working class. Sweeney also called former IRA leader Martin McGuinness "one of [his] political heroes". Sweeney later apologised for the remarks. The BBC stated that "any programme we broadcast will adhere to the BBC's strict editorial guidelines", and that work on the Panorama programme would continue. The NUJ condemned what they described as the intimidation of BBC staff and journalists.[38]

Panorama issued a statement apologising on Sweeney's behalf for his "offensive and inappropriate" comments. The Panorama episode on Robinson was never shown on the BBC. On 1 October 2019, Sweeney announced via Twitter that he would be leaving the BBC after 17 years, calling founder of the EDL Tommy Robinson a "complete c**t" after supposedly being fired because of Tommy Robinson's documentary Panodrama and the protests outside BBC Manchester.[7][39]

Putin and Russian corruption[edit]

Sweeney covered Vladimir Putin's wars, including after the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. He questioned Putin in 2014 for BBC News,[40][non-primary source needed] investigated oligarch links to Putin in 2018,[41][non-primary source needed] as well as Arron Banks' Brexit connections with the Kremlin in December 2018,[42][non-primary source needed] and investigated Boris Johnson's mysterious trip to Perugia to party with Evgeny Lebedev in 2018.[43][non-primary source needed] Sweeney reported directly from Kyiv during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.[44][non-primary source needed]

Career at LBC[edit]

In November 2020, Sweeney's new LBC podcast Hunting Ghislaine was launched.[45] It made the top spot on the Apple UK podcast chart.[citation needed] The six part series traced the story of Ghislaine Maxwell, the daughter of Robert Maxwell.

Writing career[edit]

Sweeney has written several books, non-fiction as well as fiction including the best-selling novel set in the war in Burma, Elephant Moon (2016), and a co-authored investigation into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Murder On The Malta Express (2019). His latest thriller is The Useful Idiot, about fake news in Stalin's Moscow in 1933, published in 2020.


Sweeney has won several awards including:[46]



  • Sweeney, John (1991). The Life and Evil Times of Nicolae Ceausescu. Hutchinson. ISBN 978-0-09-174672-8.
  • Sweeney, John (1993). Trading With the Enemy: Britain's Arming of Iraq. Pan Books. ISBN 978-0-330-33128-9.
  • Sweeney, John (1998). Purple Homicide, Fear and Loathing on Knutsford Heath. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-0-7475-3970-4.
  • Sweeney, John (2010). Rooney's Gold. Biteback. ISBN 978-1-84954-054-4.
  • Sweeney, John (2012). Big Daddy: Lukashenka, Tyrant of Belarus. Silvertail Books.
  • Sweeney, John (2013). The Church of Fear : Inside The Weird World of Scientology. Silvertail Books. ISBN 978-1-909269-03-3.
  • Sweeney, John (2013). North Korea Undercover : Inside The World's Most Secret State. Bantam Press. ISBN 978-0-5930-7297-4.
  • Bonini, Carlo; Delia, Manuel; Sweeney, John (2019). Murder on the Malta Express: Who Killed Daphne Caruana Galizia?. Midsea Books. ISBN 978-1-909269-95-8.
  • Sweeney, John (2022). Killer in the Kremlin: The Explosive Account of Putin's Reign of Terror. Bantam Press. ISBN 978-1-78763-665-1.
    • Sweeney, John (2022). Der Killer im Kreml: Intrige, Mord, Krieg, Wladimir Putins skrupelloser Aufstieg und seine Vision vom großrussischen Reich (in German). Heyne Verlag. ISBN 978-3-453-21849-9.
  • Sweeney, John (2022). Hunting Ghislaine. Hodder & Stoughton (published 3 November 2022). ISBN 978-1-5293-7587-9.



  1. ^ Famous Alumni – BBC and Observer investigative journalist John Sweeney Archived 25 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine Publisher: Barton Peveril Sixth Form College. Retrieved: 27 April 2013.
  2. ^ "BBC 'used LSE students as human shield' in North Korea". BBC News. 15 April 2013. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
  3. ^ "The Times & The Sunday Times".[dead link]
  4. ^ John Sweeney's 1992 Late Show election video diary - BBC Newsnight, archived from the original on 21 December 2021, retrieved 9 June 2020
  5. ^ William Turvill (17 July 2014). "John Sweeney loses job in cull of all Panorama's staff reporters: 'Management will gain more control'". Press Gazette. Retrieved 28 August 2015.
  6. ^ John Sweeney (17 August 2015). "'No evidence' of convicted postmaster's theft, Panorama learns". BBC. Retrieved 28 August 2015.
  7. ^ a b Mayhew, Freddy (1 October 2019). "John Sweeney leaves BBC after 17 years with parting shot at Tommy Robinson". Press Gazette. Retrieved 10 October 2019.
  8. ^ "Zimbabwe burning". BBC News. 3 March 2002. Retrieved 7 May 2010.
  9. ^ "National Union of Journalists (NUJ) – Winning for you at work". National Union of Journalists.[dead link]
  10. ^ Scientology: BBC reporter losing it! (Scientologist Video of events) on YouTube
  11. ^ "歯の寿命を大きく左右する根管治療|歯を残したい人におすすめ". Archived from the original on 9 August 2018. Retrieved 25 September 2018.
  12. ^ "BBC reporter blows his top at Scientologist", Daily Telegraph, 15 May 2007
  13. ^ John Sweeney's apology on YouTube
  14. ^ Row over Scientology video, John Sweeney, BBC News, 12 May 2007
  15. ^ Staff; Anderson Cooper (14 April 2007). "Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees – Inside Scientology". Anderson Cooper 360. CNN.
  16. ^ BBC Report on John Sweeney (BBC Video of events) - BBC News clip 14 May 2007
  17. ^ Sandy Smith (14 May 2007). "Investigating Scientology". BBC News Editors Blog. It's not a question of us setting out to call Scientology a cult – it's just a question of us asking legitimate questions, and their organisation being unwilling to engage seriously with us. And when you go in as a journalist to try and deal with that, it's explosive.
  18. ^ Smith, David (13 May 2007). "The BBC man, the Scientologist – and the YouTube rant". London: The Observer. Retrieved 15 December 2008.
  19. ^ "BBC man rebuked over Scientology show". Digital Spy. 14 May 2007. Retrieved 15 December 2008.
  20. ^ "BBC NEWS – UK – Sweeney reviews Cruise film". 26 January 2009.
  21. ^ "The secrets of Scientology". BBC News. 26 September 2010.
  22. ^ "BBC apologises over Panorama's North Korea programme". BBC. 17 March 2014. Retrieved 22 March 2014.
  23. ^ "Editorial Standards Committee publishes findings on Panorama on North Korea". BBC Trust. 17 March 2014. Retrieved 22 March 2014.
  24. ^ Students say LSE has placed them at 'more risk' from North Korea, The Guardian, 17 April 2013
  25. ^ Taylor, Jerome (14 April 2013). "BBC report 'endangers LSE students': Panorama programme based on secret footage taken on university field trip to North Korea". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 13 June 2022.
  26. ^ Ravi Somaiya (14 April 2013). "BBC Tactics in Covering North Korea Are Faulted". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
  27. ^ A North Korea Panorama special is seen by over 5 million viewers on BBC One., Digital Spy, 16 April 2013
  28. ^ Glyn Ford (7 May 2014). "North Korea Undercover by John Sweeney". The Asian Review of Books. Archived from the original on 13 February 2015. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
  29. ^ Catterall, Ali (15 January 2017), "Monday's best TV: Trump – The Kremlin Candidate?, Silent Witness", The Guardian, retrieved 11 June 2017
  30. ^ Seale, Jack (16 January 2017), "Trump: The Kremlin Candidate? – Panorama", Radio Times, retrieved 11 June 2017
  31. ^ McDowall, Julie (15 January 2017), "TV Pick of the Day, Monday January 16 – Zero Days: Nuclear Cyber Sabotage, and Trump: The Kremlin Candidate?", The National, retrieved 11 June 2017
  32. ^ White, Lawrence (20 January 2017), "New BBC Report: Trump: The Kremlin Candidate?", Times Union, retrieved 11 June 2017
  33. ^ a b "Trump: The Kremlin candidate?", International Journalism Festival, Perugia, Italy, 6 April 2017, retrieved 11 June 2017
  34. ^ "Perugia capitale del giornalismo, il 5 torna il Festival", Umbria Domani (in Italian), 3 April 2017, retrieved 11 June 2017
  35. ^ "Festival Internazionale del Giornalismo, entra nel vivo l'undicesima edizione", UmbriaJournal (in Italian), 5 April 2017, retrieved 11 June 2017
  36. ^ "Perugia apre le sue porte a IJF tra dibattiti, workshop e ospiti d'eccellenza", La Notizia Quotidiana (in Italian), 5 April 2017, retrieved 11 June 2017
  37. ^ "Trump: the Kremlin candidate?", International Journalism Festival (video), Perugia, Italy: YouTube, archived from the original on 21 December 2021, retrieved 11 June 2017
  38. ^ "Tommy Robinson holds Salford protest against BBC Panorama". BBC. BBC. 23 February 2019. Retrieved 6 March 2019.
  39. ^ @johnsweeneyroar (1 October 2019). "3/3 I'm sorry our @bbcpanorama on Tommy Robinson wasn't broadcast. (I paid for all the drinks, BTW.) So after 17 ye…" (Tweet). Retrieved 10 October 2019 – via Twitter.
  40. ^ "BBC's Sweeney catches Putin at talks - BBC News". YouTube.
  41. ^ "Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska & his links to British politicians - BBC Newsnight". YouTube.
  42. ^ "Brexit: Arron Banks firm has 'no address'". BBC News. 5 December 2018.
  43. ^ "Lebedev: The KGB Spy Who Helped Put Putin in the Kremlin". 15 March 2022.
  44. ^ @johnsweeneyroar (21 March 2022). "#KyivDiary Day 26Bad night in Kyiv but the Ukrainians are Time Lords" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  45. ^ Marriott, James. "Hunting Ghislaine review — John Sweeney tells the gripping tale of Daddy's little girl". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 1 December 2020.
  46. ^ "Project Klebnikov global media alliance". Retrieved 9 June 2020.

External links[edit]