BBC Tactics in Covering North Korea Are Faulted

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As tensions escalated between North Korea and the world late last month, a small group of students from the prestigious London School of Economics crossed the border into the reclusive country for what was described by organizers as a government-sanctioned "week of sight seeing, meeting with ministers, government officials" and academics.

But among the students, the university announced in an outraged statement over the weekend, were three BBC journalists filming an undercover documentary. The BBC, the university said, "deliberately misled" the group to underplay the scope of the reporting, placed the students in danger and jeopardized its work in politically fraught nations. It demanded that the BBC pull the film, set for broadcast on Monday, and issue an apology.

The BBC declined, saying that the documentary on a country so few people understand was in the public interest. And in a statement released Sunday, the BBC disputed the university's account. It said the students had been told that a journalist would be present "and were reminded of it again, in time to have been able to change their plans if they wanted to."

But the BBC, which the university says actually sent three journalists, also later acknowledged that it had not told the students of the nature of the documentary, in what it characterized as a bid to keep them safe if the journalists were found out and the students were questioned about what they knew.

Although at least some tourists are now allowed into the police state, reporters need government permission to work there and are assigned minders. In 2009 two American journalists, Laura Ling, then 32, and Euna Lee, then 36, were arrested and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor after being accused of illegally entering North Korean territory while researching a report on women and human trafficking. They were spared the prospect of years in a brutal gulag when former President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang and negotiated their release four months later.

Alex Peters-Day, the lead student representative for the university, said Sunday that students had received e-mails from the North Korean government on their return saying that it had learned that reporters were with the group and was very angry. Ms. Peters-Day disputed the BBC version of events, saying the students had not been given enough information to give informed consent.

Craig Calhoun, the university's director, said in a post on Twitter that the trip "was not an official LSE trip." He said the BBC had essentially recruited some students in a university-affiliated student international relations group, the Grimshaw Club, and had "passed it off" as a student trip.

Ms. Peters-Day said that students had received an e-mail suggesting the trip from one of the BBC journalists, Tomiko Sweeney, who is married to the lead reporter on the documentary, John Sweeney, and is a former LSE student. Mr. Sweeney did not respond to a message left on his cellphone, but said, in a BBC radio interview and on Twitter that he disputed the school's allegations. There was no answer at a London number listed for the couple.

Ceri Thomas, the BBC's head of news, said Sunday that though the trip had been organized by Mr. Sweeney's wife, it "was going to happen before the BBC got involved." The students were warned of the dangers in two meetings in London and again in Beijing, he said. "The only people we deceived," he said of the documentary, "was the North Korean government. And if the students were in on that deception they were in a worse position."

The public interest argument for the documentary was "overwhelming," Mr. Thomas said. North Korea is "a country that is hidden from view, where we suspect that brutal things are happening, one of the most oppressive regimes on the planet which is threatening nuclear war in the Korean Peninsula."

The standoff marks the second time this year that the world's delicate diplomatic dance with North Korea over its escalating nuclear threats has been disturbed by a television crew. In late February, the magazine Vice sent the former Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang to meet the country's leader, Kim Jong-un, an avid basketball fan, for a documentary series it is producing in collaboration with HBO.

That heavily covered visit, after the country's latest nuclear test in defiance of world powers, allowed the young Mr. Kim to present himself -- at least to his people -- as someone who is respected outside his country.

The BBC's Mr. Sweeney is a veteran television reporter famed for his tangles with the Church of Scientology. The North Korean guides, the university said, called him "professor."

The documentary, titled "North Korea Undercover" and part of the BBC's flagship Panorama series, shows a "landscape bleak beyond words, a people brainwashed for three generations and a regime happy to give the impression of marching towards Armageddon," according to the BBC's Web site. Unlike Mr. Rodman, Mr. Sweeney appears not to have gained access to the North Korean inner circle.

Stephen J. A. Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, expressed surprise that the BBC had chosen to report the story as it did, though he acknowledged that undercover journalism is a widely accepted practice in Britain. "You have to be able to say 'there is no other way we can get this story,' and that you're not putting other people in danger," he said.

The Associated Press has had a bureau in Pyongyang since 2012.

Universities UK, a body that represents British universities, criticized the BBC on Sunday.

"The way that this BBC investigation was conducted might not only have put students' safety at risk," Nicola Dandridge, the group's chief executive, told reporters, "but may also have damaged our universities' reputations overseas."

Late last year, the BBC's ethical standards were questioned when it emerged that one of its presenters, Jimmy Savile, had faced accusations of sexual abuse spanning his long career. The BBC had declined to broadcast a news investigation into the accusations, but did broadcast two glowing tributes to Mr. Savile after his death in 2011.

The London School of Economics became embroiled in difficulties of its own with an oppressive regime when it emerged in 2011 that it had close links with the government of Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, including accepting training contracts worth millions and a donation from the dictator's son Seif al-Islam Qaddafi. It eventually diverted the money to a scholarship fund for North African students.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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