Students slam BBC for 'gambling with lives' in N.Korea
The London School of Economics said its students, who went to
North Korea on a study trip, could have been detained for years if
the BBC scam unraveled.
The LSE claims that BBC’s Panorama reporter John Sweeney posed
as one of the university’s professors, and took the students on an
alleged study trip in order to film an undercover documentary in
North Korea. The students were not aware that they were involved in
the filming of a documentary and the BBC did not warn them of the
imposed dangers, General Secretary of the LSE Students Union Alex
Peters-Day told RT.
According to Peters-Day, rather than make a concerted effort to inform the entire student group headed to the country, individual students overheard conversations in hotel lobbies and in minivans en route to Beijing airport.
“A couple of years ago two American journalists were found to have been doing undercover journalism in North Korea. They were both sentenced to nine years of hard labor. Obviously, as we now have just heard, the climate in North Korea is more heightened than it was back then, but students should have had the right to make the decision for themselves whether or not they are going to face danger. The problem for us is that the BBC made that decision for them,” Peters-Day told RT.
“The group was just told there would be a print journalist only. It wasn’t actually until they arrived in North Korea that they were told there would be a documentary in which they would be appearing. It wasn’t until they arrived in Beijing to fly to North Korea that they were joined by other journalists. When we are talking about a trip like this, with such risks involved, it’s so important that the students would have been briefed at all stages and would have been made aware. They just weren’t in this case. The BBC deliberately withheld information from them,” she said.
In addition to the potential danger to students, Peters-Day claims that this situation potentially jeopardizes all academic work in the UK, preventing future access for professors to politically-sensitive countries.
“I know Universities UK, which represents over a hundred universities in Britain, have come out and condemned the BBC for doing that, because it places at jeopardy huge amounts of academic research. And the problem is LSE academics and other academics do work into regimes like North Korea, which is really insightful. Whereas this is a tourist trip. I’m pretty certain the information, the footage they will get would have been the same sort of footage of tourist monuments and statues of Kim Jong-un, when actually the important work that is done by universities uncovering authoritarian regimes is now at risk and jeopardy,” added Peters-Day.
The same sentiment was expressed in an email sent by the university to students and staff: "It is LSE's view 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.”
According to an anonymous student present on the trip who spoke with the BBC, they were not made aware of the presence of several journalists working prior to their flight to Pyongyang. Rather, students were told that John Sweeney was a history professor with the university, though that subterfuge seemed to dissipate slowly once the group had arrived in North Korea.
For its part, the BBC has thus far refused to pull the program, while Craig Calhoun, director of the LSE, questions whether it was worth it for anyone involved.
“The BBC story put LSE students at danger but seems to have found no new information and only shown what North Korea wants tourists to see," wrote Calhoun via Twitter.
Not everyone is entirely convinced that the BBC’s gamble was not worth the risk. John Lloyd, director of journalism at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, believes the timing and the content of the program made it “extremely valuable.”
Regardless of whether the program will ultimately be viewed as being of value, the incident comes at a delicate time for the BBC’s Director General Tony Hall, who is still trying to navigate the institution beyond last year’s accusations of a cover-up and editorial failure over the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal.
Perhaps even more damaging, according to one BBC news executive who spoke with Reuters, the decision to embed journalists with the LSE student group had been “right to the top,” and involved Hall in at least some regard.