Published on 14 Apr 2013 Sections ,

BBC denies deceiving students in undercover North Korea trip

The BBC hits back at criticism from the London School of Economics which claims an undercover Panorama reporter put a group of its students at risk on a trip to North Korea.

John Sweeney, a reporter for the Panorama programme, posed as a PhD student to gain entry to the communist country in order to carry out secret filiming.

With foreign journalists barred from North Korea, Mr Sweeney spent seight days undercover to see “the true North Korea”.

The London School of Economics (LSE) said the school authorities had “no knowledge of the trip or of its planning” and said the students “were not given enough information to enable informed consent”, and were “endangered”. It has asked the BBC to cancel the programme, due to air on Monday night.

But the BBC has refused to drop the Panorama report and has denied giving students insufficient information about the plans for secret reporting.

BBC News’ head of programmes Ceri Thomas said: “I would say that the only people we deceived in the making of this film was the North Korean government and we did that because we thought it was a necessary condition to get in to this country which is hidden from view and is absolutely essential to world events at the moment.”

The BBC has agreed to pixelate the images of the three students who have complained.

Cover story

According to the LSE, Mr Sweeney’s wife Tomiko organised the student trip through the university’s oldest student society, the Grimshaw Club – one of the few LSE societies to organise international student study trips.

The LSE said the BBC used the 10-person group as a cover for a trip that could have had dire consequences – claiming that if Mr Sweeney had been caught they party could have found themselves in solitary confinement in a North Korean prison.

Alex Peters-Day, the general secretary of the Grimshaw Club, said: “An LSE alum told us about the trip and we advertised as it an opportunity to our mailing list and our Facebook page that may be of interest to our members; but we at no point had any organisational involvement with the trip.

“In other words, there was no institutional involvement on our part whatsoever and the trip participants were aware of that.”

The LSE said that the students were not told prior to the trip that three BBC journalists would be joining them.

The school’s director Professor Craig Calhoun said on Twitter: “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.”

Prof Calhoun, accused the corporation of “lies and deception from the outset” and of putting the students at risk, telling Sky News it was “unwilling to take responsibility” for the risks it has caused.

The LSE’s student newspaper, The Beaver, quotes one student who went on the trip, who wished to remain anonymous, as saying: “We were not made aware of the presence of several BBC journalists at the time of the flight to Pyongyang. We were led to believe that John Sweeney was a history professor, although it was later implied that he was not a professor at the LSE.”

BBC caught in row with the London School of Economics after Panorma reporter John Sweeney went undercover in North Korea with a group of students (Image: Reuters)

BBC denial

In a statement, a Panorama spokeswoman said: “We recognised that because it could increase the risks of the trip, the students should be told in advance that a journalist intended to travel with them, in order to enable the students to make their decision about whether they wanted to proceed.

“They were given this information, and were reminded of it again, in time to have been able to change their plans if they wanted to.

“The students were all explicitly warned about the potential risks of travelling to North Korea with the journalist as part of their group.

“This included a warning about the risk of arrest and detention and that they might not be allowed to return to North Korea in the future.”

Prof Calhoun said all the students acknowledged that they were told a journalist would be accompanying the trip, but said they were not told who, or that two other journalists would be filming.

He told Sky News: “The school was not informed at all in any way about this. The BBC chose to present this has though the reporters were LSE students or staff…

“The BBC chose also to make this appear as if it was an LSE trip, when it was not.” He added: “I would like the BBC to pull the programme so that it is not showing footage of our students and creating dangers.”

An email sent to LSE students and staff said university authorities did not have advance knowledge of the visit.

The email said: “At no point prior to the trip was it made clear to the students that a BBC team of three had planned to use the trip as cover for a major documentary to be shown on Panorama.

“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.”

On its website Panorama says Mr Sweeney went undercover in the “most rigidly-controlled nation on Earth”, in which he “witnesses a landscape bleak beyond words, a people brainwashed for three generations and a regime happy to give the impression of marching towards Armageddon.”

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, he said he found the regime “a more frightening from Saddam’s Iraq”. In the piece he said he travelled with “a group of holidaymakers”.

On Twitter, Mr Sweeney said: “The LSE put out a statement which we dispute. We did go to North Korea Undercover. The North Korean agency unhappy.”

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