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The warning from Universities UK came as Craig Calhoun, head of LSE, warned in an article for Times Higher Education that the BBC’s actions could leave academics in a potentially “dangerous” situation.
Professor Calhoun says that three BBC journalists working on a Panorama programme about the secretive communist state, including journalist John Sweeney, “posed as LSE staff or students to trick their way past North Korea’s refusal to admit foreign journalists”.
The BBC has rejected demands from the LSE not to broadcast the programme, which is scheduled to air tonight.
Professor Calhoun writes: “The trip was not planned or officially sanctioned by the LSE. The BBC advertised through a student society that itself was not a formal sponsor.
“The students were deliberately given limited information about the plan, being told only that ‘a journalist’ would join the group, when in fact it appears the entire visit had been planned from start to finish to facilitate the insertion of a three-person Panorama team.”
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive officer of UUK, said: “The UK’s academics have a global reputation and it is vitally important that they can be trusted and seen to be working in an open and transparent manner. The way that this BBC investigation was conducted might not only have put students’ safety at risk, but may also have damaged our universities’ reputations overseas.
“We regret the BBC’s approach in this matter. Universities UK will be seeking to discuss this with the BBC to ensure they fully understand the concerns of the university sector.”
Professor Calhoun writes: “The BBC’s actions in using a group of students from the London School of Economics to disguise a visit to enter North Korea illegally in order to make a film for Panorama has left the LSE, and indeed academics generally, in a very difficult, if not dangerous, position.”
He adds: “In order to pursue our academic mission, our students and our staff need to be able to move as freely as possible about the world without facing stigmatisation as possible spies. The BBC’s irresponsible actions directly threaten that freedom.”
However, Ceri Thomas, BBC News head of programmes, defended the Panorama investigation when speaking on Radio 4’s The World This Weekend.
“The material fact is that [the LSE students on the trip] were made fully aware of what the risks were if this journalist were to be discovered. The only people we deceived were the North Korean government,” he said.