After the drama that played out in the BBC‘s news division late last year amid the Jimmy Savile and Newsnight crises, the broadcaster has come under further fire regarding one of its news shows. The London School of Economics believes some of its students were endangered during a recent trip to North Korea on which a team of undercover BBC journalists filmed a documentary for the Panorama program. The LSE and its students union have demanded that the BBC withdraw the show which is due to air tonight, but the broadcaster is still going forward. LSE director Craig Calhoun wrote on Twitter today: “Producers of Panorama seem not to have learned any lessons from recent BBC scandals. Consciously chose to endanger LSE students. For what?” In a statement, the BBC said “public interest” in airing the report “is very strong indeed.” It added that such a program “involves some difficult judgements, editorially, practically and ethically and that is why it has been handled at a senior level.”
The university society trip to North Korea came at the end of last month just as tensions between the police state and the rest of the world were rising. The group was told “a journalist” would be joining them, but one student said, “We were not made aware of the presence of several BBC journalists at the time of the flight to Pyongyang.” The BBC’s Ceri Thomas contends the students had twice been told about the possible dangers of having a journalist on the trip, but hadn’t been informed about the documentary so as to protect them should the team be discovered. Reporter John Sweeney, who posed as a professor, told BBC News, “All of the students are grown-ups” and “knew about the risks.”
The New York Times reported that Alex Peters-Day, head of the LSE students union, said that since their return some students had received e-mails from an angered North Korean government which had learned that reporters were with the group. Although some tourists are now allowed into North Korea, journalists require government approval. In 2009, two American journalists were arrested there and only avoided years in prison when Bill Clinton negotiated their release. Peters-Day noted, “We don’t know what could have happened” to the LSE students “and, crucially, neither does the BBC.”
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