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Radio review: File on 4 and Think with Pinker

03 December 2021


File on 4: “Am I in a Cult?” (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) explored organisations operating in the UK. There are said to be up to 2000 cults

File on 4: “Am I in a Cult?” (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) explored organisations operating in the UK. There are said to be up to 2000 cults

SO SOPHISTICATED has the mockumentary genre become that one occasionally needs to check a programme’s credentials. File on 4 (Radio 4, Tuesdays) is generally a credible source; but last week’s episode, “Am I in a Cult?”, tested credulity to the limit. Presented by the self-professed cult expert Rachel Stonehouse, it opened with a collage of sound-bites intended to alarm us into listening further. “There’s a cult at the bottom of the village,” one lady said, bemusedly. It was irresistible.

There are apparently “up to 2000 cults” operating in the UK. Any one of us could be recruited into a cult at any time; and yet so subtle is their hold over us that we may not even know. The first case study involved Universal Medicine (UM), an organisation imported from Australia, and created by Serge Benhayon, whose character was immediately signposted for listeners as despicable by the epithet “bankrupt tennis coach”. UM has set up its British headquarters in Somerset, with a café and B&B as its most public-facing instantiations. Our intrepid reporter headed to the West Country to investigate.

UM holds an eccentric attitude towards meals and their preparation. A former employee of the café — “we will call her Linda” — explained: all dishes must be stirred anti-clockwise, they eat strange food, “and the hullabaloo that cinnamon caused is something I’ll never forget.” But “Linda” is fighting back. She has formed the campaign group Frome Against Universal Medicine, and she appears to have forced UM into retreat. But not completely. In the action-packed finale to the programme, producer and reporter bravely staked out the café. They had a coffee and used the lavatory; there were no incriminating leaflets on display. But then they discovered a pot of “nourishing spices” and “boxes of tea”: damning evidence of continued cultic activity.

Among the absurd histrionics, there were sad stories to relate. We heard from a father whose relationship with wife and daughter had been destroyed by their involvement with UM. From the University of Salford we learned of the activities of the Korean Shincheonji Church of Jesus, and the damage done to vulnerable students lured into its reportedly controlling network. No such story can be regarded with anything but sincere sympathy; but nothing in this self-important documentary supported the proposition that we are surrounded by cults intent upon controlling our minds and fingering our wallets. Unless, of course, I myself have been recruited and just don’t know it yet.

“What a man wishes, he believes to be true.” The famous saying of Demosthenes applies as much to cult-hunters as it does to the stock-market analysts who were the subject of last week’s Think with Pinker (Radio 4, Thursday). In this series, Professor Steven Pinker explores common delusions, such as wishful thinking and finding patterns in random phenomena. It is worth a listen, if only to hear about the cows whose method of picking stocks — by choosing to defecate in different zones of a field — is as accurate a predictor of the market as most professional brokers.

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