Entertainment & Arts

BBC apologises over Panorama's North Korea programme

Panorama reporter John Sweeney alongside North Korean official
Image caption Panorama reporter John Sweeney spent eight days in North Korea for the programme

The BBC has apologised after failing to ensure students were aware of the risks involved in taking part in a Panorama programme on North Korea last year.

The BBC Trust's editorial standards committee said the breaches amounted to "a serious failing."

Reporter John Sweeney joined a group of former and current London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) students to gain access to North Korea.

The LSE and the father of one of the students both complained to the BBC.

The Trust concluded the BBC "failed to consider a number of important issues and risks, and failed to deal with them appropriately".

It found that information given to the students was "insufficient" and "inadequate", which "meant the daughter of the complainant did not possess the knowledge necessary to give informed consent".

The BBC Executive has sent letters of apology to the unnamed father who complained and the LSE.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Cameras are rarely allowed to record life inside the communist state

The father of "student X" and the LSE were dissatisfied with the BBC's responses to their original complaints, which were subsequently accepted on appeal by the Trust's Editorial Standards Committee.

Just before the programme was transmitted last year, the LSE and its students' union demanded the BBC withdraw the Panorama programme.

The union's Alex Peters-Day accused the BBC of using students "as a human shield".

She added that: "Students were lied to, they weren't able to give their consent".

But Sweeney said the students were told a journalist was with them. The LSE however was not, as it was not an LSE trip.

The programme was broadcast as planned.

The BBC Trust's Editorial Standards Committee also found that "the use of the LSE's address details on the programme teams' visa applications was inappropriate and this, combined with other factors, risked linking the LSE with the trip and resulted in unfair treatment to the LSE."

Alison Hastings, Chair of the BBC's Editorial Standards Committee, said: "Discovering stories in difficult or dangerous places is one of the BBC's greatest strengths.

Public interest

"There was a real public interest in making this programme in North Korea but, in the Trust's view, the BBC failed to ensure that all the young adults Panorama travelled with were sufficiently aware of any potential risks to enable them to give informed consent. This was a serious failing, and the BBC is right to apologise to the complainants."

The BBC Executive said it accepted the Trust's findings but was "pleased that the Trust found that there was a clear and strong public interest in commissioning and broadcasting the programme and that the correct referral procedures and processes were followed by the programme team and senior management.

"We also accept, however, that aspects of the BBC's handling of the project fell short in a number of areas, with the Trust finding against the BBC on four of its 21 rulings."

The students and post-graduates were led on the trip by a third member of the Panorama team, Tomiko Newson, who is also Sweeney's wife.

Newson, Sweeney and a cameraman/producer pretended to be part of their trip and accompanied the students as they travelled around the country on an organised tour given by North Korean guides, filming with conventional tourist cameras.

The BBC Trust report stated that: "From the moment the BBC became involved in the trip to North Korea, Tomiko Newson (who was the trip organiser and tour leader) had a conflict of interest which was further compounded when she became employed by the BBC.

"The BBC should have ensured that there was someone independent of the programme team present to lead the trip."

The Trust acknowledged a strong public interest in the investigation, in light of the circumstances surrounding North Korea's nuclear testing in late 2012 and early 2013.

It also concluded the corporation spent considerable time evaluating the risks created by its presence on the trip to North Korea and that the correct referral procedures and processes were followed.

At the time of the broadcast, concerns were raised in the media about the impact the programme could have on academics working in areas like North Korea.

For decades, North Korea has been one of the world's most secretive societies. It is one of the few countries still under nominally communist rule.

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