BBC apologises to LSE over Panorama on North Korea

Student’s father also receives apology after number of failings identified

March 17, 2014

The BBC has apologised for failing to inform students at the London School of Economics about the risks of having an undercover journalist join their trip to North Korea.

The LSE strongly criticised the corporation after it emerged that BBC reporter John Sweeney had joined a student society trip to the communist state by pretending to be a university professor.

Mr Sweeney, his cameraman and a third member of the Panorama team – his wife Tomiko Newson, an LSE graduate who organised the trip - used the ruse to film Panorama: North Korea Undercover, which broadcast on BBC One on 15 April 2013, using conventional tourist cameras to capture the life under North Korea’s secretive regime.

However, the BBC has now apologised to the LSE and students after its Editorial Standards Committee found a number of failings related to the trip.

In response to a series of complaints by the LSE and the father of a female student – named only as “student X” - who went on the trip, the board found the “provision of information to the students who took part in the trip was insufficient and inadequate”.

It 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 programme teams’ visa applications was “inappropriate” and risked linking the university with the trip and “resulted in unfair treatment to the LSE”, the board adds.

Alison Hastings, chair of the Editorial Standards Committee, said 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 apologise to the complainants,” she added.

However, she added that “there was a real public interest in making this programme in North Korea”.

The BBC spent considerable time evaluating the risks created by its presence on the trip to North Korea and the correct referral procedures and processes were followed, the board says.

The father of “student X” welcomed the apology, saying he was concerned the BBC had “so obviously risked the lives of these students in an ill-conceived scheme of questionable journalistic value”.

“It is now clear that the BBC failed the students, who were unwitting human fodder used to fulfil John Sweeney and his wife’s personal ambition to film inside North Korea,” he said. 

“My daughter was likewise deeply troubled by the impact this secretly filmed programme may have had on the North Korean guides and their families,” he added.

An LSE spokesman said it “welcomes the finding of the Editorial Standards Committee and the letter of apology issued to the School by the BBC Executive”.

Last year, LSE director Craig Calhoun wrote in an article for Times Higher Education how the subterfuge could have put other academic projects abroad at risk.

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Reader's comments (1)

This was a few years ago now, and I remember watching the programme, and hearing later about the fact that they very possibly could all have ended up in a North Korean prison. And it presumably means the students would have to think carefully if they ever want to go there again. I believe Korean is a hard language for English speakers to learn, but all language study benefits from time spent in the country, so would possibly consider going there sometime, North or South, when COVID is less of a problem. South Korea is known to have been one of the best countries for dealing with it, and the North claimed to have it under control, but there has to be uncertainty about this for now.