Last week's bloodbath in Switzerland turned the spotlight once again on cults. Suzanne Evans on press reactions.
rteE TRAGIC NEWS from witzerland may have mporarily knocked the saga of the Princess of Wales' alleged affair off the front pages of last week, but this real news story was no better reported the same quota of rumour, hearsay and wild speculation abounded.
Scenes of the fireball at Waco are still fresh in the public mind and it is understandable that with the horrific news of the deaths of 53 members of the Order of the Solar Temple that a sort of `cult fever' once again gripped the press and the nation.
But while reporting of the much greater loss of life on the ferry Estonia generally concerned itself with the known facts, this story was handled differently, as was the tragedy in Waco.
Because so called "cults" are treated with suspicion and are considered, unlike ferry companies, to be inherently dangerous, any attempt at balance and accuracy may, so it appears, be abandoned in favour of scaremongering and the grossest of assumptions.
On the whole, the broadsheets did an excellent job, sticking to the facts they had, which at first were few.
Unfortunately, the tabloids needed more news, quicker, and launched themselves into "cult horror mode". Some of what they published' had absolutely no basis in fact.
What particularly surprised me was that even BBC 2's Newsnight, that bastion of serious journalism praised for its accuracy and balance, fell into the scaremongering trap, with its reporter telling us that this tragedy was "evidence of the complete grip cult leaders have over their brainwashed flock."
This simple sentence alone makes a myriad of assumpdons that simply cannot be taken at face value. First and foremost, we have the problem of the use of the term "cult".
Anti-cult groups such as the Cult Information Network and FAIR have applied this term to some independent but mainstream evangelical Churches and have even suggested that a popular direct sales company employing housewives world-wide may use cultic techniques.
The term tends to be used in a blanket fashion to refer to any faintly religious organisation that does not agree with the belief system of the accuser.
Secondly, the use of the term "brainwashed" should always set alarm bells ringing. Despite what anti-cult groups may say to the contrary, there is not one single shred of evidence supporting the theory that cults are involved in the mass brainwashing of recruits that stands up to academic scrutiny.
Even the anti-cult movement has begun to accept this fact in its own cautious way by almost abandoning the word in favour of the term "mind control".
In her report on the tragedy, Sue Bishop introduced a well known anti-cult clinical psychiatrist who was said to confirm that the intelligent but vulnerable can be led into self destruction and the unchallenged implication was there loud and clear that this is what is likely to happen to all members of all cults.
This alarming message was driven home by another unchallenged assertion made by Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Network: that if you are in a cult and the leader tells you to kill yourself, you will. Presumably, he had forgotten that both Jonestown and Waco had their survivors and that there may have, been those who tried to escape their fate and were shot.
It Is still unclear in fact as to whether Waco or Jonestown were actually collective suicides.
Thankfully, Professor Eileen Barker of the London School of Economics was present to point out that mind control, if it is practised, is largely unsuccessful and that by no means all cults are dangerous.
Her detailed study of the Unification Church, or the Moonies, showed that of the thousands of people who attended Moonie seminars, only a tiny percentage were still fully committed after two years.
But unfortunately that is not quite such a good story as the anti-cult tales of doom and gloom; and the viewer with little or no knowledge of new religious movements would probably have switched off, with his or her belief that cult membership means inevitable suicide reinforced.
The bottom line is that of course so-called cults can be dangerous. Any religion, because of the fervour it induces, be it Christianity or the Moonies, can be dangerous.
But the fact that cults generally are considered fair game can be no excuse for the sort if oil-informed reporting that we have sadly not seen the last of.
The worst of it is that the longer we continue to blame bizarre cult behaviour on the all-encompassing get-out clause of brainwashing and mind control, the further away we are from understanding the real dynamics of these groups and preventing such tragedies again.