BBC defends using students in North Korea subterfuge

The BBC has defended its controversial actions relating to the filming of the trip by London School of Economics students to North Korea, saying that the Panorama programme it aired last Monday was “strongly in the public interest”. There are concerns that the BBC’s actions might place academics working in 'sensitive countries' at risk.

The BBC also said that lack of frankness in disclosing the truth about the trip to the students beforehand was for their own benefit in the event of discovery and interrogation by North Korean authorities.

Ceri Thomas, head of news programmes, said the North Korean government was the only party the corporation had deceived.

The journey, which involved three BBC undercover journalists recruiting 10 London School of Economics (LSE) students to accompany them to North Korea to ostensibly film a ‘culture’ excerpt for Panorama, has had massive fall-out.

The BBC has admitted that the group was deliberately misled about the involvement of the journalists in the visit, but has refused to issue an apology to the LSE for using the university and its reputation as a means of deception.

The visit to North Korea took place from 23-30 March in the name of the Grimshaw Club, a student society at the world-renowned institution. The LSE authorities had no advance knowledge of the trip or of its planning.

Alex Peters-Day, secretary of the LSE Students’ Union, told The Telegraph that students had been manipulated. “The trip was organised by the BBC as a ruse to get into North Korea, and that’s disgraceful,” she said.

“They have used students essentially as a human shield.”

The LSE, which had demanded that the BBC withdraw the programme, has defended itself against criticism from its own students. Six of those who were on the Pyongyang trip have slammed the university for publicising the story.

According to the Guardian, Robin Hoggard, LSE's head of external relations, rejected the students’ complaints that it had exposed them to greater risk by “going public” with its misgivings about the film.

He also accused the BBC of putting the LSE in an “impossible position” when it refused to kill the programme.

A BBC report on Thursday said that in an open letter to LSE Director Craig Calhoun and Chairman Peter Sutherland, the six students said they "felt compelled to establish the basic facts of the case".

They said they had been told a journalist would go on the trip and they could risk deportation or detention.

In Beijing, the night before they flew to Pyongyang, they learned that the journalist was John Sweeney and that he worked for the BBC. They were all happy to continue with the trip, they said in the letter.

When they returned, they all received emails from a North Korean government agent, saying it had been discovered that a BBC journalist was in the group, after watching initial BBC reports of the trip. The agent threatened to “make public to the world and the international press the lies made in the name of LSE students”.

In a second email, sent to the BBC and copied to the students, the North Korean agent wrote that the incident would be ignored if the BBC stopped journalistic activities regarding the LSE visit. “Otherwise, if the related programme is broadcast, I will be left with no choice but to expose all the real story and data, " he added.

The students said they had no objection to broadcasting of the documentary, but their main concern was that the BBC had agreed the programme would not reveal their names or that of the LSE.

"We feel that we have now been put at more risk than was originally the case, as a result of the LSE's decision to go public with their story."

Hoggard denied going public. After the BBC’s decision to air the story, he explained, LSE felt it had a duty to warn staff and students of the consequences, which it did through internal email.

“We knew that LSE would be publicly identified if any students were identifiable on Panorama (several were). And even if they weren't, the North Korean regime had threatened to reveal the details of all of them on the visit, and how the journalists gained entry to North Korea by claiming to be LSE students or staff."

In the university email, he said LSE’s chief concerns were twofold. “At no point before the trip was it made clear to the students that a BBC team planned to use the trip as cover for a major documentary.

“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 before their departure from North Korea.”

The programme has created enormous controversy in Britain, with Universities UK, which represents 100 institutions, saying it might have damaged UK universities' reputations overseas, which relied on transparency.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said the BBC needed to understand the concerns of the university sector.

"The UK's academics have a global reputation, and it is vitally important that they can be trusted and seen to be working in an open and transparent manner."

Other leading academics have said that the fiasco threatened to jeopardise future overseas visits by academics and the safety of lecturers working in politically sensitive countries.

In an interview with The Telegraph Professor George Gaskell, LSE’s deputy director, said the trip posed dangers to other LSE academics. “Some of my colleagues are in Africa, China and various other sensitive countries,” he said. “If their independence and integrity is challenged they may find themselves at considerable risk.”