By now you may have heard the story: In late March, with a group of students attending the London School of Economics, an undercover BBC journalist named John Sweeney surreptitiously entered North Korea, where he and a cameraman filmed segments for an upcoming documentary. When LSE officials discovered the ruse, they delivered a blistering email to the school's student body, reading in part, "The BBC's actions may do serious damage to LSE's reputation for academic integrity and may have seriously compromised the future ability of LSE students and staff to undertake legitimate study of North Korea." LSE students, the same message argued, "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 school wants BBC not only to apologize, but also to never air the footage captured during the trip.
The entire episode, as the email suggests, is rather complicated: The expedition, while filled with LSE students, was organized not by the school but by a group of people including Sweeney's wife, Tomiko, who teaches at LSE. (The trip was promoted — though not endorsed or funded — by a student group called the Grimshaw Club, which posted a notice about it on its Facebook page and its mailing list.) And, according to The Independent, the students who traveled with Sweeney were fully aware of his status as a journalist, and understood the risks of accompanying him into North Korea, which is famous for detaining Westerners in order to obtain leverage in international negotiations. But — and this is where it gets ethically ambiguous — while the students were supplied with Sweeney's identity, they weren't apprised of his plan to disguise himself as an LSE professor — "Dr John Paul Sweeney, Phd History" — in order to evade the scrutiny of North Korea border officials. Had he been caught lying, the entire group might have been vulnerable to questioning, detention, and/or permanent extradition.