The BBC’s governing body, the BBC Trust, has instructed the UK pubcaster to apologize for putting a group of students from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) at risk during the making of a documentary on North Korea.
The Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee stated that the BBC “failed to consider a number of important issues and risks, and failed to deal with them appropriately” while making its ‘Panorama’ documentary North Korea Undercover, which aired on BBC1 on April 15, 2013.
In the doc, BBC reporter John Sweeney spent eight days undercover in North Korea, using access he and a fellow ‘Panorama’ cameraman/producer gained by joining a group of LSE students and pretending to be part of their trip.
The filmmakers accompanied the students as they travelled around the country on an organized tour given by North Korean guides, and filmed with conventional tourist cameras. While the students had been told that a journalist would be accompanying them on the trip, they were not told a documentary was being filmed, and did not learn the identity of the journalists (or, more importantly, that they were working for the BBC) until the team reached Beijing, half way en route to North Korea.
LSE officials reacted angrily after learning about what had happened, issuing a statement arguing that “the risks taken were unacceptable” and adding that, while it is “fully supportive of the principle of investigative journalism in the public interest… we cannot, however, condone the use of our name, or the use of our students, as cover for such activities.”
The university requested that the BBC pull the doc and issue a full apology, however the network went ahead with the broadcast.
The BBC Trust defended the broadcaster’s decision to air the film, stating that “there was a strong public interest in the program, particularly in light of the circumstances surrounding North Korea’s nuclear testing in late 2012 and early 2013.”
But it said that issues arose “in the gathering, rather than in the broadcast” of the material.
“The BBC failed to consider a number of important issues and risks, and failed to deal with them appropriately,” the Trust ruled. “In particular, the provision of information to the students who took part in the trip was insufficient and inadequate, and meant the daughter of the complainant did not possess the knowledge necessary to give informed consent.
“The use of the LSE’s address details on the program teams’ visa applications was inappropriate and this, combined with other factors, risked linking the LSE with the trip and resulted in unfair treatment to the LSE.
“From the moment the BBC became involved in the trip to North Korea, Tomiko Newson – who was the trip organizer and tour leader – had a conflict of interest which was further compounded when she became employed by the BBC,” the Trust added. “The BBC should have ensured that there was someone independent of the program team present to lead the trip.”
In summary, Alison Hastings, the chair of the Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee, said: “Discovering stories in difficult or dangerous places is one of the BBC’s greatest strengths.
“There was a real public interest in making this program in North Korea but, in the Trust’s view, the BBC failed to ensure that all the young adults ‘Panorama’ travelled with were sufficiently aware of any potential risks to enable them to give informed consent. This was a serious failing, and the BBC is right to apologize to the complainants.”