In the dispute between the London School of Economics and the BBC over Panorama’s “North Korea Undercover”, something depressing has been revealed about one of the worst aspects of modern universities.
Robin Lustig captured it in an article for a national newspaper. “There is an unmistakable whiff of ‘I should have been told’ about the outraged reaction from LSE bosses…” wrote the former World Tonight presenter. Actually, it was more than a whiff. On Times Higher Education’s website, Craig Calhoun, director of the LSE, remonstrated that: “The school authorities were not consulted at any stage, in any way, by the BBC.”
Such reverence for bureaucracy and hierarchy is sadly too common even in excellent universities. No doubt any proposal to send an LSE delegation to North Korea would have necessitated all the form-filling and committee time that failed to prevent Saif al-Islam Gaddafiobtaining a PhD. But this was not an official LSE delegation, and the BBC, despite its recent travails, still understands that rules are no substitute for wisdom and that bureaucracy should not replace liberal principles.
As Panorama finalised plans for its documentary, news emerged that North Korea had carried out a third nuclear weapons test. The UN Security Council responded with fresh sanctions, and Kim Jong-un threatened to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the US. From there it was a small step to conclude that reporting from inside the secretive and repressive dictatorship would serve the public interest. That much is obvious, but as I learned when reporting from Iraq, Romania and Serbia and as an editor sending correspondents to Algeria, Bosnia and Kosovo, the how is harder than the why.
North Korea has never welcomed independent-minded Western journalists. It became additionally paranoid after a failed rocket launch in April 2012. Plainly John Sweeney was not going to gain admission by presenting his proposal at Pyongyang’s embassy in Gunnersbury Avenue, Ealing (yes, really, it’s just around the corner from Acton Town station). Asking nicely was unrealistic, so subterfuge became an option.
Missing from every squawk of wounded pride by the LSE is awareness that the corporation would have been utterly wrong to tell the students everything
BBC editorial guidelines specify that such secret filming requires senior editorial approval and can be justified only by a clear public interest. These hurdles were cleared.
The next issues were risk and consent; these were considered by the BBC’s hugely experienced high-risk team. Clearly, the biggest risk was to Sweeney. In 2009, two US television journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were detained after illegally crossing the border from China to enter North Korea. They spent five months in prison and were released only after intervention by former president Bill Clinton. An illegal border crossing was plainly too dangerous. The BBC concluded that travelling with a student party was not. This was not guesswork.
In common with other authoritarian regimes from Zimbabwe to Burma, North Korea is well aware that reporters sneak in by pretending to be sightseers. There was a time when academics did it, too. In the early 1980s, when he was a senior lecturer at the LSE, the broadcaster Geoffrey Stern took journalists masquerading as students to Albania, which was then as closed and as paranoid as North Korea is today. This is why, like the Soviet Union before it, Kim’s regime admits tourists to North Korea only on fiercely chaperoned tours and employs security service guides to ensure that they see nothing they are not supposed to. The reporter gets in, but is unlikely to obtain much useful information.
Ungenerous critics may feel this is what happened to Sweeney. But he was able to test the mood in North Korea as threats of apocalyptic war were issued. This was brave and valuable. But had the LSE been consulted about Panorama’s decision to use the tourist trick, the programme would not have been made. Why? Because the BBC had to weigh the balance between consent and complicity.
Missing from every squawk of wounded pride by the LSE is awareness that the corporation would have been utterly wrong to tell the students everything. They were briefed that there would be a journalist among them. They were explicitly warned that, if he were caught, they would be expelled from the country and never permitted to return. They were not told that he worked for Panorama or precisely what he planned to do. Sweeney had to be sure that, in the event of his arrest, he could say without fear of contradiction: “These people are bystanders, not participants. Take me, not them.” That was not cynical.
As an editor, I would have made the same decision. As an academic, I wish the LSE would support it. In its liberal soul, I suspect it does. Defending the interests of future students and important research is legitimate, but it has been clumsily done. Calling for the BBC not to broadcast Sweeney’s programme was shameful.