LONDON (AP) — One of Britain’s leading academic institutions, the London School of Economics, is accusing the BBC of putting students at risk by using them as cover for a covert reporting trip to North Korea.
The school says BBC’s decision to send three TV journalists to the secretive communist state in March to shoot a documentary without governmental permission to work there by posing as members of a student trip could have caused grave trouble for the pupils, if the deception had been uncovered by North Korean authorities.
The squabble between two powerful British institutions comes at a time of uncertainty caused by North Korea’s bellicose threats to launch a new medium-range missile at its enemies.
It brought more unwelcome attention to the BBC, which has faced sustained criticism for its handling of an investigation into alleged child sex abuse committed by the late Jimmy Savile, long a top BBC talk show host.
The “Panorama” documentary on North Korea based on the eight-day trip in March is set to air Monday night.
The BBC has thus far refused the university’s plea to keep it off the air to protect the students from possible retribution if their identities are revealed on the show. The broadcaster said three students who have asked to be removed from the show will have their images blurred so they cannot be identified.
The trip was not organized by LSE but by a students’ society known as the Grimshaw Club. University officials said they did not know about the BBC arrangement and would not have approved it if they had known about BBC’s plans.
The BBC’s John Sweeney, who LSE officials say posed as a post-graduate LSE student, said Sunday it was “entirely wrong” for the university to try to prevent the broadcast. He said all of the students had been told about the potential risk and had agreed to allow the journalists to join the trip, adding that all were over 18 years of age and capable of making their own decisions.
A BBC story about the trip that the network filed online Sunday said Sweeney and a two-person crew that included his wife spent “eight days undercover” in North Korea.
LSE student union general secretary Alex Peters-Day said Sunday that the students were lied to and that at least one of the students on the eight-day trip was not told in advance of the journalists’ participation.
“This is a student welfare issue,” she told a BBC interviewer. “We don’t know what could have happened to those students and, truthfully, neither does the BBC. It’s absolutely disgraceful that he (Sweeney) put students in that position. It’s incredibly reckless.”
She said Sweeney was being “disingenuous” by citing free-speech concerns as justification for putting students in danger.
LSE blamed BBC for not being forthcoming about its reporting plans in North Korea. In the past, journalists have at times been detained for working without authorization in North Korea, where foreign reporting crews usually have to operate under strict governmental supervision.
In an email sent to staff and students, the university complains that the BBC program was produced “using as cover a visit to North Korean which took place from 23-30 March in the name of the Grimshaw Club, a student society at LSE.”
BBC News Head of News Programs Ceri Thomas said on a BBC News program Sunday that the students were given the information needed to give informed consent to the increased risk of traveling with journalists who did not have authorization to work in North Korea.
He said, however, that the students were told roughly a month before the trip that there would be “a journalist” traveling with them but were later told, once they were en route to North Korea, that there would be three journalists who would be conducting undercover filming for TV.
Thomas said the students may have been under the impression that a print journalist, not a three-person TV crew, was going to be involved.
He said BBC would air the documentary despite LSE’s concerns because of high public interest in the show.
“It is disappointing for us that LSE has chosen to make this public,” he said. “We would have kept them out of this altogether. They could have avoided the publicity, and we think that would have lowered the reputational risk.”
He said BBC executives felt that if the deception was discovered the students likely would have been deported, but he admitted he could not “categorically” rule out the possibility that their lives might have been at risk.
BBC press officials said senior executives would not discuss the matter but might issue further statements.
The BBC’s action sparked concerns that the use of a British academic research trip as a cover for a clandestine TV reporting venture might undermine the ability of researchers to operate overseas.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said BBC must understand how its actions might hurt research institutions. She said the BBC may have not only put students in harm’s way but also damaged the reputations of British universities.
“We regret the BBC’s approach,” she said.
A BBC story about the trip says Sweeney and a two-person crew that included his wife spent “eight days undercover” in North Korea.