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BBC accused of endangering students in undercover North Korea report

By Jethro Mullen, CNN
updated 9:25 AM EDT, Mon April 15, 2013
  • A BBC reporter posed as a student to get into North Korea
  • The London School of Economics said he put its students on the trip in danger
  • The BBC says the students were informed of the risks
  • But LSE officials say they weren't given enough information

(CNN) -- A BBC journalist who got into North Korea by using a group of students from a top British university as camouflage is facing accusations that he recklessly endangered their safety and damaged the school's reputation.

BBC reporter John Sweeney posed as a student from the London School of Economics and Political Science, or LSE, on a visit to the secretive nation last month, during which he filmed footage for the broadcaster's prime-time current affairs show "Panorama." He traveled with his wife and a cameraman.

Officials and student representatives from the LSE say Sweeney didn't fully explain the situation to the students he was traveling with in advance, saying only that "a journalist" would join the trip. In doing so, they say, he put the students at risk and jeopardized future visits by the school's academics to North Korea and other politically sensitive countries.

"The students were not given enough information to enable informed consent, yet were given enough to put them in serious danger if the subterfuge had been uncovered prior to their departure from North Korea," the LSE said in a statement.

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The authoritarian North Korean regime tightly controls who enters its territory, with journalists from the international news media, including CNN, often refused entry. Authorities significantly restrict the movements of those who are allowed in. And the penalties for those who break the rules can be severe.

In 2009, two American journalists reporting from the border between North Korea and China were arrested and received heavy prison sentences. They were released later that year after former President Bill Clinton flew to North Korea and met with top officials there.

The LSE students and the BBC journalists all returned safely from their trip last month, but some of the students then complained about what Sweeney had done, said Alex Peters-Day, the secretary-general of the LSE's students union.

"I think it's absolutely disgraceful that he put students in that position," she said Sunday in an interview with the BBC. "It's incredibly reckless."

According to Peters-Day, the students "were lied to, they weren't able to give their consent."

But Sweeney and the BBC say the students on the trip were aware of the risks involved.

"All of them were told twice that a journalist was coming," he said in a separate interview with the BBC. "I was that journalist, I used my own name."

A BBC spokesman said in a statement cited by the broadcaster that "the students were all explicitly warned about the potential risks of travelling to North Korea with the journalist as part of their group. This included a warning about the risk of arrest and detention and that they might not be allowed to return to North Korea in the future."

Sweeney did, however, admit that he falsely claimed to be a PhD student at the LSE in his application to enter North Korea.

"We go in and we tell a lie to the North Koreans, and I believe that's journalistically fine and proper," he said, acknowledging that the North Korean government is now "very angry" about what happened.

The LSE said that the BBC journalists had used a university society to set up the controversial trip.

"This was not an official LSE trip," Craig Calhoun, the director of the LSE, said on his Twitter account. "Non-students & BBC organized it, used the society to recruit some students, & passed it off."

The Grimshaw Club, the student society of the school's international relations department, said a former LSE student had told it about the trip, and as a result it had advertised it on its mailing list and Facebook page as an opportunity "that may be of interest to our members."

"There was no institutional involvement on our part whatsoever and the trip participants were aware of that," the club said.

As a result of the situation, the LSE said it had asked the BBC to withdraw the "Panorama" TV program, scheduled to be broadcast Monday, and to make a full apology -- a request the BBC has so far refused.

"LSE is fully supportive of the principle of investigative journalism in the public interest, and applauds the work of journalists in dangerous parts of the world," the university said. "We cannot, however, condone the use of our name, or the use of our students, as cover for such activities."

In his interview with the BBC, Sweeney said the majority of the students who were on the trip supported the "Panorama" program that he and his team had produced.

But Calhoun said the program "seems to have found no new information and only shown what North Korea wants tourists to see."

He also said that "producers of 'Panorama' seem not to have learned any lessons from recent BBC scandals," an apparent reference to the BBC's handling of abuses police say were carried out on the corporation's premises by the late TV presenter and radio host Jimmy Savile.

That scandal has cost several top BBC officials their jobs, including former Director-General George Entwistle.

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