BBC North Korea film 'damages UK's academic reputation'

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Media caption,

Reporter John Sweeney spent eight days in North Korea for the programme

Universities have accused the BBC of putting the integrity of academics at risk with an edition of Panorama which was filmed secretly in North Korea.

Three BBC journalists used a trip by a group of London School of Economics students as cover, without getting their full consent, the LSE has said.

Universities UK said the move may have damaged "universities' reputations overseas", which rely on transparency.

The BBC said the film was in the public interest and would be aired as planned.

The LSE and its students' union have demanded the corporation withdraw the programme, insisting the students were not told there was an undercover team of three or that they were filming a high-profile documentary, and so could not give informed consent.

'Global reputation'

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, which represents 100 institutions, 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," she said.

"The way that this BBC investigation was conducted might not only have put students' safety at risk, but may also have damaged our universities' reputations overseas."

Sir Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy, and Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society said the film raised "serious issues" about the credibility and security of UK academics working overseas in highly-sensitive circumstances.

Their statement said: "The ability of academics to work, study and carry out research around the world is hugely dependent on trust and respect for their integrity, and it is vital that this trust is not undermined.

"While undercover reporting plays an important role in investigative journalism, these issues do not appear to have been properly considered by the BBC in making its risk assessment."

Former Labour Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw - a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and a former BBC reporter - said he was "amazed" the corporation had not secured written consent from students on the trip.

"I'm also surprised that the LSE's consent wasn't sought, although this wasn't a formal LSE visit," he said.

He added that with some students challenging its account, "the BBC must now publish all of the emails and written evidence that it has to support its conjecture that there was full consent".

Risks 'justified'

The BBC has defended its actions, saying the film was strongly in the public interest.

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

He said the students had been informed of the risks on three separate occasions and authorisation for the trip had gone "right to the top" within the BBC.

"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," he said.

Media caption,

Alex Peters-Day, LSE Students Union: "Students were lied to, they weren't able to give their consent"

The programme, North Korea Undercover, is set to be broadcast amid rising tensions in the region caused by the secretive state testing a nuclear device and missile technology.

The BBC said the trip was organised by the wife of Panorama reporter John Sweeney. The couple spent eight days inside the country for the programme, along with a cameraman.

Mr Thomas said she had organised a similar trip for students a year earlier and the latest visit would have gone ahead even if Panorama had not been involved.

'Student welfare'

Mr Thomas acknowledged the students had initially been told there was one journalist but that, when they were in Beijing before flying into Pyongyang, they were told there would be three journalists.

He said three of the students had since asked "that their images be taken out" and that they would be "pixelated or blobbed".

Sir Peter Sutherland, chairman of the LSE's board of governors, said the programme created "unacceptable risks" for the school's reputation and the students involved.

"The BBC unscrupulously used a number of students as human cover for a filming operation without fully informing all of them what was happening," he said.

"If academics cannot go to any part of the world on the basis of trust in terms of what they say they are doing and what they are about, this undermines the integrity of the institution."

Panorama reporter John Sweeney said the majority of the students he had travelled with supported the programme.

"What the LSE is saying we dispute," he told BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House programme.

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