Monday, April 15, 2013

London School of Economics denounces BBC tactics

(AP) ? The renowned London School of Economics has denounced the BBC for using a student-organized trip to North Korea as "cover" for a reporting trip to the secretive communist country.

The LSE said in a statement Saturday the BBC put students at risk by having at least one of a team of three journalists pretend to be affiliated with the university to gather material for a TV program set to be broadcast Monday.

The university says it has tried and failed to persuade the BBC not to air the program. LSE blamed BBC for not being forthcoming about its reporting plans in North Korea, where foreign reporting crews usually have to operate under strict supervision.

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 from going forward.

LSE student union general secretary Alex Peters-Day said the students were lied to and that at least one of the students on the trip was not told in advance of the journalists' participation.

"This is a student welfare issue," she said. "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."

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 already en route to North Korea, that there would be three journalists who would be conducting undercover filming for TV.

He said the students may have been under the impression that a print journalist, not a three-person TV crew, was going to be involved.

Thomas 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.

In an email sent to staff and students, the university complained that the BBC "Panorama" program was "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."

It said the group included Sweeney and journalists Alexander Niakaris and 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," the email said. "Their purpose, posing as tourists, was to film and record covertly during the visit in order to produce the 'Panorama' program."

The BBC has faced intense criticism in the last year for its handling of an investigation into alleged sexual abuses committed by the late Jimmy Saville, one of its star presenters.

A BBC statement released Sunday indicated that the students "were all explicitly warned about the potential risks" of traveling to North Korea with journalists as part of this group. It said they were warned that the might face "arrest and detention."

The statement said BBC recognized it was raising the risks to the students by adding a journalist to the group.

Sweeney also defended the BBC on one of its programs Sunday morning. He said the LSE's version of events is not accurate.

A BBC story about the trip says Sweeney and a two-person crew that included his wife spent "eight days undercover" in North Korea.

Associated Press


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