BBC subterfuge casts long shadow

Academics count the costs of Panorama’s North Korea exposé

April 18, 2013

Source: Reuters

On the lookout: university trips abroad may come under more scrutiny

Universities are likely to tighten up on overseas student visits because of the BBC’s use of a London School of Economics group to gain access to North Korea, a registrar has predicted.

Three BBC journalists, including reporter John Sweeney, visited North Korea in March with 10 LSE students in a trip arranged by Tomiko Newson, Mr Sweeney’s wife and an LSE graduate.

The BBC refused the LSE’s requests to withdraw the resulting Panorama programme, which was broadcast on 15 April.

Hazel Smith, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who lived in North Korea for nearly two years while on secondment to the United Nations World Food Programme, highlighted academic exchanges between US, UK and North Korean universities over the past 25 years.

She said that the North Koreans appeared to be taking the subterfuge seriously, a stance that would have a “serious impact” on British universities engaging with the state.

Professor Smith added that the North Koreans have long memories and that the consequences would be felt by “those academics and students who have been trying genuinely to engage with some form of positive relationship, which allows for increased understanding…between societies”.

The “superficial” Panorama programme “doesn’t provide anything other than what hundreds of real academics and real journalists have provided, through either going in as tourists themselves, becoming embedded with NGOs [non-governmental organisations] or other means”, she argued.

Professor Smith predicted that the North Koreans responsible for the journalists and students on the visit “will be punished” by the regime - most likely through the loss of good jobs that allowed them to support their families.

Meanwhile, Paul Greatrix, registrar at the University of Nottingham, said that the issue of whether a university could be held legally responsible for a student trip organised without its knowledge was “a really good question”. He said that at Nottingham, “our student societies would know to go through to the students’ union, which would then come to us. It does seem that they [the LSE trip] were a bit off the screen.”

Asked if the LSE situation would prompt universities to tighten up on student trips, he said: “I am absolutely sure it will. We will certainly be talking to our students’ union about reminding student societies…making journeys overseas of the procedures they have to go through: proper risk assessment and making sure they do it by the book.”

Read LSE director Craig Calhoun’s take on the BBC’s actions.

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