BBC to air North Korean doc despite LSE 'human shield' claim

The BBC has refused to cave in to mounting pressure to drop a documentary about North Korea, despite facing a barrage of criticism and accusations of putting university students at risk during the trip.

The corporation plans to show a Panorama report about life in the secretive communist country tonight, filmed by a BBC crew working undercover among a group of students from the London School of Economics (LSE).

The LSE claims key information was withheld from students, who were used "as a human shield" and placed in danger.

Professor George Gaskell, pro-director at the London School of Economics, said the university authorities were unaware until last week that the BBC had used a 10-person party as cover for an eight-day trip by Panorama to the country.

The professor said, had veteran journalist John Sweeney been caught, the party – which included an 18-year-old student – could have found themselves held in solitary confinement in a North Korean prison.

Students were not told that an additional two-man film crew would be joining them on the trip until they arrived in Beijing, en route to Pyongyang.

Three students have since complained and the BBC has agreed to pixelate their images. But Prof Gaskell said the situation could now jeopardise the work of its academics in other sensitive parts of the world.

Ceri Thomas, the BBC's head of programming, yesterday defended the BBC's stance, saying it had given the students enough information about the risks involved so they could "give us fully informed consent".

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's The World this Weekend he also said the access the trip provided justified putting the lives of the students at risk.

But one member of the party wrote to LSE's student newspaper, The Beaver, to say they had not been informed by the BBC of the risks, the Times said.

The anonymous student was reported as saying: "Contrary to what the BBC spokesperson insists, I have never been informed of the risks that I faced being in North Korea with the one print journalist who I agreed to travel with.

"I was never told that I could be held in detention or that I risked not being able to return to the country.

"Furthermore, because we were informed that there are only two flights out of Pyongyang to Beijing per week, we would not have been able to leave even if we had insisted on no longer being part of the trip, as the nature of what we had consented to changed.

"Because most of the consenting was done in private conversations between a student and Tomiko (Mr Sweeney's wife) or Alexander (the other BBC journalist), what each student consented to varies."

Prof Gaskell told BBC Radio 4's The World this Weekend yesterday that the LSE and the BBC "clearly have a different opinion about what is an acceptable risk. I think the situation in which the students found themselves was potentially extremely dangerous".

He said: "LSE believes that any reasonable assessor of risk, or indeed any parent contemplating their son or daughter going on such a trip with the involvement of the BBC, would have thought the risks quite unacceptable.

"The chairman of our council, Peter Sutherland, wrote to Lord Patten (chairman of BBC Trust) and said that in view of this deception the LSE received an unqualified apology from the BBC."

But Mr Thomas defended the action, telling BBC Radio 4: "We told them there would be a journalist on the trip and that if that journalist was discovered it could mean detention, that it could mean arrest."

Alex Peters-Day, general secretary of the LSE Students' Union, accused the BBC of using the students as "human shields". She said it had put at risk future trips by LSE students, telling the BBC News channel Mr Sweeney's actions were "reckless".

Ms Peters-Day said: "The only thing to come out of this is that I am so grateful that we are not in a situation where we are seeing how we have to remove our students away from a detention camp in North Korea.

Tory MP Rob Wilson was concerned by the decision to use the university trip as a cover, saying: "If I were a parent of the young people involved in this trip to North Korea I would be very concerned that the BBC could be so reckless with the safety of my son or daughter."

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said she would be seeking to discuss the situation with the BBC to ensure it understands the concerns of the university sector.

She said: "We are concerned about the methods used in making this programme. Universities must be able to work with integrity and operate in sensitive areas of the world.

"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."

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