BBC refuses to apologize for using a student trip to secretly film inside North Korea

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BBC refuses to apologize for using a student trip to secretly film inside North Korea

The London School of Economics (LSE) said in a letter to its staff and students on Saturday that it “deeply regrets” BBC’s refusal to apologize for and cancel its Panorama documentary on North Korea scheduled to air on Monday night. Footage for the program was obtained when three BBC journalists used a LSE student trip as cover for secret filming inside the country, while withholding knowledge of their plans from the school and allegedly misleading the students.

The university student society Grimshaw Club‘s eight day trip to North Korea is understood to have been organised by a third party. Neither the club nor the LSE accept any organisational responsibility for the tour. Guardian reported that John Sweneey’s wife, Tomiko, was behind the arrangement of the trip. Mr John Sweeney and his wife, accompanied by a camera man, used the trip as cover for secret filming for their investigative BBC Panorama series.

Guardian quotes a ‘senior BBC source’ as saying the tour attendants were warned “twice” in advance that there will be “an undercover journalist” on the trip. But the real plan, that involved three BBC journalists and secret filming, was not revealed to them until they were in Beijing, the source said.

But a person who the LSE student paper Beaver believes attended the trip told the interviewer that students were unaware of the presence of BBC journalists on their plane to Pyongyang and were led to believe one of them was a “history professor”. The LSE’s Saturday letter quotes North Korean agencies as saying this supposed ‘professor’ posed as a LSE PhD student while undergoing verification with the authorities and had even provided the exact address of his ‘office’. In reality, Mr Sweneey graduated from LSE in 1980 with a BSc in Government and therefore is no longer a LSE student.

The LSE condemned the BBC for putting their students in “unacceptable” danger and alleged the corporation had not obtained informed consent from those who attended the trip. But the BBC insists that it gave the students enough information, some of which it had to withhold for the students’ “own safety” in an event of an interrogation. The Telegraph reports Panorama’s spokeswoman as saying the students were “fully aware” of the presence of a journalist and given a chance to not attend the trip.

However, in its Saturday letter to staff and students the LSE said BBC staff “confirmed” the School’s students were “deliberately misled” with regards to the involvement of the corporation in the trip. Mr Sweneey is reported to have rebuffed this by saying he spoke with students after their return and ‘majority’ of them do not feel misled. George Gaskell, head of the LSE, wrote in a Saturday letter that “at least two students” and parents of one have expressed “grave concern” about the situation.

The school spoke of the “extreme danger” the operation posed to the safety of the students had the filming been discovered. The Student Union Secretary Alex Peters-Day condemned BBC’s “reckless” conduct on Saturday saying she was relieved students managed to leave the country without being detained. In clearly contrasting assessment, the BBC conducted an internal risk analysis of the plan and gave it clearance “at the highest level”, the LSE letter says.

The letter also alleged BBC conduct endangers LSE’s reputation and impedes their research in countries where independent academic enquiry is looked upon suspiciously.

Jason Wong, a student representative, told the Guardian on Sunday he would be “seeking to revoke” Mr Sweneey’s alumni status.

North Korea has been high on the news agenda in 2013. There has been an escalation of provocative rhetoric and displays of power between the Kim-Jong-Un administration and the US and its Southern ally over the regime’s nuclear capability. The Telegraph believes the tensions heightened in December 2012 after a North Korean missile launch. The BBC argues it will not pull the programme because it was filmed in a country “central to current events”. The BBC News head of programmes Ceri Thomas defended the film as “an important piece of investigative journalism”.

v2 (15.04.2013)

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