This afternoon, a group students at Bournemouth University had the pleasure of meeting John Sweeney, an investigative journalist for the BBC's flagship current affairs series Panorama.

Edward Lawrence, a second year television production student, had initially invited Sweeney to give a lecture about the three films he has made and the concepts that interlink them. Sweeney specified that he was particularly fascinated with “the two states of mind lock in North Korea and the Church of Scientology.”

Following his lecture, a small group of journalism students sat with him for a casual interview about his previous work and had answers to more intimate questions about what he does, how he got to where he is now and the challenges he faced along the way.

Sweeney quickly revealed himself to be an approachable and humorous character, recalling stories about his career as though chatting to friends in a pub. He even posed for photos with each of us, re-enacting his memorable explosion at a senior member of the Church of Scientology, yelling: “You were not there at the beginning!” His animated manner had us riveted and we were entertained by his singing, goat bleating and sporadic comments in french.

Sweeney has stated that he was “hugely embarrassed” by his outburst at the Scientologist and has apologised profusely, but as time has passed, he can now identify the humour of the situation, saying: “You must have a sense of humour to be a journalist.” He added: “But I apologised then and I apologise now.”

In his films he discusses and reveals the restrictions associated with the regime in North Korea, and those associated with the Church of Scientology. He told us: “Inside scientology you are encouraged not to use the internet and not to read critical articles. In some way you are brainwashed. In North Korea, it's the same but 1000 ways worse. My job as a reporter is to challenge these restrictions.”

As aspiring journalists, we wanted to dig a little deeper to find out how he achieved the success he enjoys today. We asked him how he tackles barriers that stand in his way of challenging stories. In short, he explained that it is because he cares so will not let those hurdles hinder him. He wants to tell the stories of the voiceless, despite those who tell him he can't. Sweeney said: “Helping people who are afraid to tell their stories is the most important thing. I want to help them to get that story to air to millions of people.”

We pondered if there was a specific personality trait that had helped him to be a successful journalist and Sweeney put his success down to his love of telling stories. He said “I don't like journalists who don't show compassion. I feel compassion, mercy, pity. These are all simple human virtues but they're important to have, along with a big common sense.” He also added: “I don't consider the lunatic in the scientology video to be me. I'm very different from that. There was something that snapped that time.”

We concluded the conversation with a few general points of advise for budding journalists. Sweeney specified three: 

 “Stick to stories where you are alone. Meaning don't always go with the crowd”

“Don't do anything you wouldn't want to tell your mum about.”

 “If someone tells you that you can't tell that story, then do your best to tell it.”

We left the meeting feeling inspired. Many of us studying journalism are doing so because we want to make a difference to the lives of those who cannot tell their stories. John Sweeney amplified this passion.

If you would like to read more about John Sweeney, or to watch some of his documentaries, you can visit his website here.