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BBC allegedly uses students as ‘human shields’ in undercover North Korea trip

The London School of Economics expressed outrage after learning tonight’s episode of BBC’s Panorama, “North Korea Undercover,” was filmed during an unofficial school trip. In late March three journalists posed as LSE employees and accompanied 10 students into the country, normally inaccessible to foreign journalists.

by Nick Tjaardstra nick.tjaardstra@wan-ifra.org | April 15, 2013

The trip was advertised on a student group website as an educative “week of sight seeing, meeting with ministers, [and] government officials,” The New York Times reported, but the students ran the risk of arrest and incarceration were the filming discovered.

“For us, this is a matter of student welfare — students were lied to, they weren’t able to give their consent,” Alex Peters-Day, general secretary of the LSE’s student union, told the BBC. She added: “They’ve used students essentially as a human shield in this situation.”

Students knew they would be accompanied by a journalist, but they were not aware that investigative reporter John Sweeney, his wife and a cameraman had orchestrated the trip to film a documentary, LSE Director Craig Calhoun wrote. Sweeney, who graduated from the LSE in 1980, allowed North Korean guides to call him “professor,” according to The New York Times.

An LSE email to students and staff said that the BBC admitted to “deliberately” misleading the students, Reuters reported. No consent forms were signed, according to The Guardian, and Peters-Day said students did not realize the journalists’ intentions until it was too late — at least one not until the plane ride, according to Reuters.

Thomas argued that the “overwhelming” public interest of the story outweighed any risk to the students, The New York Times reported. But Calhoun tweeted that the investigation “seems to have found no new information and only shown what North Korea wants tourists to see.” Moreover, he wrote that the BBC never consulted the school.

“It is the 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,” the LSE’s email to students and staff said.

But Sweeney called the LSE’s reports “factually inaccurate.” Ceri Thomas, head of BBC News programs, insisted that the students provided informed consent: He said they were told in London twice that traveling with a journalist would be potentially dangerous, Reuters reported. BBC chose not to inform the students about the documentary to protect them in the event of questioning, Thomas told the BBC.

“The only people we deceived was the North Korean government,” Thomas said. “And if the students were in on that deception they were in a worse position.”

The BBC conducted a risk assessment prior to departure, The Guardian reported, but Calhoun discounted the procedure.

“No competent assessment could conclude that the BBC had any right to use the LSE in this way, nor to make such judgements on behalf of students who were not BBC employees,” he wrote.

In 2009, American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to 12 years in labor camps after being discovered illegally in North Korea. Former president Bill Clinton negotiated their release four months later, The New York Times reported.

The LSE students returned unscathed, aside from a few angry emails from the North Korean government, The New York Times reported. Their identities will be obscured in the programme, according to The Guardian.

But Calhoun wrote that the ordeal may haunt the LSE’s reputation longterm. He said that the school’s mission hinges on its ability to freely travel in foreign countries, now likely to be suspicious of apparent academics and tourists.

The LSE demanded tonight’s episode of Panorama be cancelled, but it is set to air as scheduled at 20:30 GMT.

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