Panorama put LSE 'bystanders' at risk

May 2, 2013

Tim Luckhurst is incorrect to claim that the London School of Economics’ stance on the BBC Panorama programme “North Korea Undercover” was based on a “reverence for bureaucracy” or “wounded pride” (“NK confidential: BBC correctly balanced consent and complicity”, Opinion, 25 April). It is the BBC, rather than the LSE, that lost perspective.

As scholars based at the LSE, we have conducted years of fieldwork in dangerous parts of the world, including war zones. Finding ways to do this kind of research is challenging and sometimes it is necessary to take risks. However, there is a line that should not be crossed. Taking risks in relation to our own lives is one thing: knowingly jeopardising the lives and liberty of others is another.

While we have great admiration for bold investigative journalism, we find the BBC’s willingness to put what it calls “bystanders” in harm’s way quite extraordinary. Luckhurst does not seem to agree. We do not know any other academic researcher who would take such a cavalier attitude, and we have found it depressing listening to senior BBC management justifying the actions of John Sweeney and his team.

Posing as an LSE academic and using students as cover in the way that the Panorama journalists did was unjustifiable. It is not sufficient to claim that students were told what they needed to know, or even that some of them may have found it thrilling to be harbouring journalists out for a scoop. At the LSE, enthusiastic students must submit their fieldwork plans for risk assessment, precisely because they may not be in a position to gauge the dangers that will confront them. Obviously the BBC does not consider itself to have a similar duty of care. The LSE had no choice but to take issue with the programme and to alert our staff and students to the deception perpetrated in their name.

Tim Allen and James Putzel
Department of international development
London School of Economics

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