Did BBC Put Unwitting Students at Risk in N. Korea? Apologizes for Undercov

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What were BBC editors and producers thinking when they put college students at risk in North Korea? BBC has since apologized.

The BBC had three of its staff members pretend to be part of an eight-day trip to the North Korea with current and former students from the London School of Economics.  The reporters posed as part of the school trip so they could sneak in the country and, as a result, put the students at grave risk of consequences if the undercover operation was discovered. The BBC staff were comprised of reporter John Sweeney; his wife Tomiko Newson, who also served as the trip’s leader; and a cameraman.  This is the 30-minute program that aired last year.

The London School of Economics and one of the parents of a student (“Student X”) complained to the BBC about having put the students and the school in peril. The school was not informed of any undercover operation by the BBC. Some of the students on the trip also complained that they did not know or consent to accompany, and in effect, cover for reporters present, until they were already in North Korea. (One student claimed to have given informed consent, though.)

After the school and the parent’s complaints to the BBC, the BBC Trust investigated the issues and insisted the BBC apologize.


The Fallout

While the apology is a good step, it certainly can’t undo the dangers the BBC’s actions could have set into motion for these students.

Moreover, what risks, hostilites or retributions does BBC’s using students for cover create for future students and reporters going to North Korea?

The threat is real.

Last year, when the ruse was exposed, the students reportedly received an e-mail from a North Korean tourism official threatening them for having broken the law in North Korea. The e-mail, according to the UK Independent, read:

“’I warn you that I will make public to the world and the international press the lies made in the name of LSE students.

“I reserve the right to make public and publish all personal data, including all your passports, to demonstrate that while we have been direct and honest with you, you have broken the DPRK law.”


The Trust Report: BBC didn’t get informed consent

The complaints to the BBC were taken up by the Editorial Standards Committee.

The complaints focused on the issue of informed consent — were the students made properly aware of what it meant to have BBC reporters on the trip with them, posing as part of a school trip?

Other concerns included privacy issues, accuracy and conflict of interest, according to the Trust report.

The Trust did find “strong public interest” in the program and that “Issues arose in the gathering, rather than in the broadcast, of material by the BBC.”

While the BBC found its staff did take good steps in “evaluating the risks,” it did determine the BBC was “insufficient and inadequate” in informing students.  As such, the BBC found that at least one student wasn’t able to give “informed consent.”

The BBC’s Chair of Editorial Standards Committee Alison Hastings said in a statement on the BBC’s website:

“Discovering stories in difficult or dangerous places is one of the BBC’s greatest strengths. There was a real public interest in making this programme in North Korea but, in the Trust’s view, 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.”


Who Organized the Trip?

The London School of Economics also protested that the trip was given the appearance of an LSE-organized trip, even though LSE didn’t know about the journalists’ involvement. LSE said in an April 19, 2013 complaint letter to the BBC that the trip was “designed to look like an LSE trip with the express purpose of duping the North Korean authorities into allowing a team of BBC journalists to enter the country and film illegally. It was also clearly orchestrated to keep LSE itself in the dark.”

While the BBC admitted it wasn’t an LSE trip, “which was why the LSE was neither consulted nor asked to give its consent in any way,” the BBC journalists did use LSE addresses on their visa applications to further orchestrate the undercover aspects of their trip, according to the Trust’s report. The Trust ultimately ruled that the BBC was wrong to do so because it implicated LSE in the trip.

The father of Student X also complained that BBC set up the North Korea trip with the “sole purpose of providing a means for the Panorama team to enter North Korea,” according to the Trust’s report.

The Trust created a timeline to determine if Student X’s father’s complaint held water.  According to the timeline, Newson, the wife of Panorama reporter Sweeney and organizer of the trip, had been to North Korea as part of an LSE group in 2012. A few months later, Panorama hired her for a potential project on infanticide in North Korea, which was later “put on hold or shelved.”

Around the same time the trip to North Korea involving LSE students was being brought up and organized, Panorama considered going on the trip, and Newson then “informally” told most of the students in person about a journalist going on the trip. (The others were reportedly by phone). A month later, the BBC gave its “final sign-off…to undertake secret filming and recording.”

The Trust decided that the BBC was “intrinsically involved” in the trip and had “certain responsibilities towards the students” even though it wasn’t involved in the initial set-up of the trip.


Dispute over consent

The BBC claimed last year that it made sure the students were aware of what having BBC reporters undercover meant.  But some students said last year they didn’t know they had journalists with them until they were already in North Korea.

The BBC’s Ceri Thomas said the BBC told students “twice before we left London and one more [time] in Beijing on the way into North Korea, what we thought those risks were,” according to the Guardian.  One of the students, Mila Akimova, agreed with the BBC, and said she knew about the undercover work and was “fully aware that if we were discovered we may even be arrested.”

However, the LSE Students Union said that some students on the trip had no idea what was going on.

“It was only when they got to North Korea when they figured out it was a documentary and that the journalists were going to be pretending to be LSE professors. Before that it wasn’t clear how they [the journalists] were there,” LSE student unions’ Alex Peters-Day said.

LSE’s director Craig Calhoun added that the BBC should have gotten “written consent” to ensure students were aware of the risks.

Informed consent is different from just plain-old consent, iMediaEthics notes. For example, journalists get consent to interview someone; informed consent is an extra step, and means making sure sources understand the potential repercussions of their involvement with journalists. In this case, informed consent would mean making sure students on the trip knew what could happen to them if they were exposed to be sneaking in journalists in North Korea.

The Canadian Association of Journalists recently published a paper discussing the issue of informed consent, as iMediaEthics previously reported.


Conflict of Interest

The Trust argued that Newson had a conflict of interest as not only was she in charge of the trip but also she was involved with the BBC program.

The Trust clearly laid out the potential problems because of the conflict:

“If anything had gone wrong in North Korea, Tomiko Newson would have had to choose between fulfilling her duty as team leader to the students, which would have required her to stay with them if possible and use her training to protect them if they were detained, and her role as part of the Panorama team, which would have required her to act in the best interests of the BBC.”

Interestingly, the BBC didn’t find Newson’s marriage to Sweeney to be a conflict of interest.


BBC apology

iMediaEthics asked the BBC for comment on the BBC Trust ruling and apology statement. We also asked if, moving forward, in similar cases if the BBC will take any extra steps to ensure it has informed consent from sources who may be put at risk.

A BBC spokesperson responded, simply pointed us to the BBC apology statement. The apology, broadcast on April 15,  conceded it didn’t get informed consent from the student whose father complained and that the BBC put LSE at risk as well. The apology stated:

“BBC News accepts in full the Trust decision on Panorama’s North Korea Undercover programme broadcast on 15 April 2013. We are pleased that the Trust found that there was a clear and strong public interest in commissioning and broadcasting the programme and that the correct referral procedures and processes were followed by the programme team and senior management. We also accept, however, that aspects of the BBC’s handling of the project fell short in a number of areas, with the Trust finding against the BBC on four of its 21 rulings.

“In particular we have apologised to Student X for the finding by the Trust that insufficient information was given to her ahead of the trip about the involvement of the BBC journalists and the potential risks, which meant that Student X did not have sufficient knowledge on which to give informed consent. We have also apologised to the LSE for the Trust’s finding that the programme created the risk of harm to the LSE’s reputation.

“The Trust recognised that this programme involved a number of finely-balanced editorial judgements and that the BBC spent considerable time evaluating the risks in circumstances which were highly unusual. In the planning for and making of the programme BBC News believed that it was treating all the students and the LSE fairly.”


LSE Responds to apology

LSE’s chairman, Sir Peter Sutherland, published the March 17 apology letter from BBC News & Current Affairs director James Harding, which was prompted by the Trust ruling.  The apology admitted that it was “inappropriate” to use “LSE’s address on the North Korea visa applications” and that the BBC should have gotten “informed consent” from those involved.

iMediaEthics asked LSE for its response to the apology statement and the Trust ruling.

Its press office sent iMediaEthics a statement, which was also published on its website.  The statement quoted LSE professor Craig Calhoun saying:

“LSE welcomes the finding of the Editorial Standards Committee and the letter of apology issued to the School by the BBC Executive.

“The committee highlighted a number of breaches in BBC guidelines in the making of this programme, for which the Executive has apologised. These breaches include the following:

  • “the use of LSE’s address details on the North Korea visa applications was inappropriate and this, combined with a number of other factors, risked linking LSE with the trip and resulted in unfair treatment;
  • “the provision of information to the students who took part in the trip to North Korea was insufficient and inadequate and therefore student x, the daughter of one of the complainants alongside LSE, did not possess the knowledge that was necessary for her to give informed consent.

“LSE would like to confirm its strong support for the production of programmes in the public interest and for journalists working to highlight important issues in dangerous parts of the world.”

See the full 42-page report on the BBC website.

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Did BBC Put Unwitting Students at Risk in North Korea? Apologizes for Undercover Report

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