BBC Accused of Endangering Students in North Korea Trip

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The BBC is under fire for sending three journalists, posing as students from a prestigious British university, on a trip to North Korea‬ to film an undercover documentary on the world’s most isolated country. The London School of Economics (LSE) has asked the broadcaster to cancel the film, scheduled to air Monday night, arguing that it endangered bona fide students on the same trip and jeopardized the school’s work in politically fraught countries. But the broadcaster has refused to pull the program “Panorama—North Korea Uncovered,” calling it “an important piece of public interest journalism.”

A group of 13 – LSE students and BBC journalists John Sweeney, Tomiko Sweeney and Alexander Niakaris – visited North Korea from Mar. 23 to 30, but the university did not become aware of the broadcaster’s presence in the group until a meeting with BBC staff last week.

The U.K.’s public broadcaster has been beset by scandal in recent months. In October 2012, it emerged that one of its most prominent onscreen personalities, the late Jimmy Savile, had sexually abused children for decades while on duty for the BBC. Then, in November, a BBC news program falsely implicated a British politician in a sex abuse case without contacting him first.

According to the Guardian, a senior BBC source said the LSE students were told individually and as a group that an undercover reporter would be joining them on their trip to North Korea. The BBC argued that the students were not given more details to keep them safe from North Korean authorities should the reporters be discovered. LSE said in an e-mail last week to its students and staff that “the students were not given enough information to enable informed consent, yet were given enough to put them in serious danger if the subterfuge had been uncovered prior to their departure from North Korea.”

Alex Peters-Day, the head of LSE’s student union, blamed the broadcaster for using students “as a human shield” and organizing the trip as “a ruse for them to get into North Korea.” Peters-Day, who was not on the trip, added that the North Korean government discovered that journalists were with the group of students after they left.

Reporter John Sweeney, who posed as a PhD student on the trip, defended the documentary and said the students were notified of the BBC’s intentions, although the university was not because the trip was not an official school visit. (The trip was organized in the name of an LSE student society called the Grimshaw Club.)

North Korea rarely admits journalists and most foreigners who do visit enter with a tourist visa. With very little information on North Korea available to the outside world, how to report on the reclusive state without putting themselves and others at risk is a tricky question for journalists. Yet entering North Korea undercover is nothing new. Last year, two reporters from the British tabloid the Sun entered North Korea on business visas to “reveal what it is like living in the world’s most secretive country.”