BBC Panorama programme on North Korea and LSESU Grimshaw Club
You may be aware of current media reports on a BBC Panorama programme on North Korea, due to be aired this evening in the UK, and its link with a visit to North Korea, which took place in March 2013, in the name of the Grimshaw Club, a student society at LSE.
We wanted to forward on to you an email on this subject that was sent by the School to all current staff and students at LSE on Saturday 13 April, to show you the concerns that the School has raised with the BBC over its conduct and the steps that LSE has taken to deal with the matter.
The LSE Alumni Relations Team
All School email (sent to all current LSE staff and students on Saturday 13 April 2013)
The School wishes to alert all staff and students to a serious development which may affect them personally in future. This relates to the conduct of the BBC in respect of a Panorama programme entitled North Korea Undercover, which is due to be shown next Monday evening, 15 April.
The programme has been produced using as cover a visit to North Korea which took place from 23-30 March 2013 in the name of the Grimshaw Club, a student society at LSE. The School authorities had no advance knowledge of the trip or of its planning.
The visiting party included Mr John Sweeney, Mr Alexander Niakaris and Ms Tomiko Sweeney. In advance of the trip it was not known to the rest of the party that they were three journalists working for or with the BBC. Their purpose, posing as tourists, was to film and record covertly during the visit in order to produce the Panorama programme.
LSE’s chief concerns are twofold. First, at no point prior to the trip was it made clear to the students that a BBC team of three had planned to use the trip as cover for a major documentary to be shown on Panorama. BBC staff have admitted that the group was deliberately misled as to the involvement of the BBC in the visit. The line used was that “a journalist” would join the visit. BBC staff have argued that this lack of frankness in denying the genuine members of the group the full details was done for their own benefit in the event of discovery and interrogation by North Korean authorities. 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 prior to their departure from North Korea.
BBC staff asserted in a meeting with LSE management on 9 April 2013 that the BBC had undertaken its own risk assessment in advance of the trip, which had been approved at the highest level. LSE believes that a reasonable assessor of risk, or indeed any parent contemplating their child’s involvement in such an exercise, could only have concluded that the risks taken were unacceptable.
Our second major concern relates to information that came to light after the meeting on 9 April. This is that John Sweeney gained entry to North Korea by posing as a PhD student. The North Korean authorities allege that he described his occupation for entry control purposes as “LSE student, PhD in History” and gave his address as that of LSE - including a specific office room number which is actually used by a genuine member of LSE staff. Students report that the North Korean guides during the visit repeatedly addressed him as “Professor” and that he actively went along with that. John Sweeney graduated from LSE in 1980 with a BSc in Government. He is not an LSE student. If he has a PhD in History (or anything else), it is not from LSE. He does not work for the LSE.
We have no information about how Mr Niakaris or Ms Sweeney may have described themselves in order to gain entry to North Korea, but no description of them as current LSE students or staff can have been accurate.
While this particular trip was run in the name of a student society, the nature of LSE’s teaching and research means that aspects of North Korea are legitimate objects of study in several of our academic disciplines. Indeed, LSE academics work on aspects of many politically sensitive parts of the world, including by travel to those locations. It is vital that their integrity is taken for granted and their academic freedom preserved. The BBC’s actions may do serious damage to LSE’s reputation for academic integrity and may have seriously compromised the future ability of LSE students and staff to undertake legitimate study of North Korea, and very possibly of other countries where suspicion of independent academic work runs high.
Finally, LSE is aware of grave concerns about the actions of the BBC raised by at least two students who took part in the visit and the parents of one.
In light of all of the above, the Chairman of LSE asked the BBC on 10 April to withdraw the planned programme and issue a full apology to LSE for the actions of BBC staff in using the School and its good reputation as a means of deception. This endangered the students and could endanger academics in the future.
LSE deeply regrets that, earlier this afternoon, the Director-General of the BBC has refused the Chairman's request.
LSE is fully supportive of the principle of investigative journalism in the public interest, and applauds the work of journalists in dangerous parts of the world. We cannot, however, condone the use of our name, or the use of our students, as cover for such activities.
The School stands ready to discuss with any student or member of staff who so wishes how best to address the possible difficulties which the actions of the BBC may entail for them in future.