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BBC to air North Korea documentary despite criticisms from university

The London School of Economics says its students were ‘deliberately misled’ by the BBC, who sent a journalist within a travelling party.

Reporter John Sweeney (right) posed as an LSE student to travel with a group of visiting students and compile a secret documentary.
Reporter John Sweeney (right) posed as an LSE student to travel with a group of visiting students and compile a secret documentary.
Image: BBC screen grab

THE BBC has insisted it will air a documentary about life inside North Korea, despite the complaints of a university which says its students were put under unacceptable risks by the broadcaster’s actions.

A ‘Panorama’ documentary to be aired tonight was secretly filmed by reporter John Sweeney, who entered the country with a group of visiting students from the London School of Economics.

The BBC says that before they left, students were told twice – both individually and as a group – that an undercover journalist would be posing as a PhD student and included in the travelling party of students from a society at LSE’s department of international relations.

However, the university itself says students were only told the true extent of reporter John Sweeney’s plans after they had travelled to Beijing, en route to North Korea – giving them no chance to opt out of the tour. The university itself only learned the extent of the programme last week.

North Korea does not allow foreign journalists to enter the country unless with strict supervision, and the university has argued that the discovery of Sweeney’s actions by North Korean authorities could have put its students in grave danger.

LSE added that three of the ten travelling students had lodged complaints when they arrived back.

It is reported that Sweeney had applied for a visa listing himself as an “LSE student, PhD in history”, and gave his address as an office used by a member of LSE staff.

Two other BBC figures – Sweeney’s wife Tomiko and a cameraman, Alexander Niakaris – also travelled. Tomiko Sweeney had helped to arrange the student society’s trip to North Korea the previous year.

“They [the LSE students] most certainly didn’t have enough information to make an informed decision,” Peter Sutherland, chair of the university, told the Guardian.

“They were going into North Korea, without full knowledge, and therefore potentially finding themselves in a situation of great danger and risk, in an unpredictable environment,” he said.

“Full and informed consent was never given, never given by the students to the trip that actually took place. They did not know that they were part of a covert action to run a serious – hour-long programme, I understand – on the BBC, with covert filming of what was happening.”

However, the BBC says the actions were justified given the current interest in, and threat posed by, North Korea.

“”We think the risks as we explained them to the students were justified… but had we had any suggestion that lives were at risk… we wouldn’t have gone anywhere near this,” said head of news programmes Ceri Thomas.

Thomas said the faces of the students would be pixellated or otherwise obscured to safeguard their identities.

The broadcaster’s promotional text for the documentary – which is to air at 8:30pm this evening on BBC One – said the programme showcased “a landscape bleak beyond words, a people brainwashed for three generations and a regime happy to give the impression of marching towards Armageddon.”

Read: John Kerry pushes for talks as North Korea threatens defiant missile launch

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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