Is It So Bad That the BBC Followed Students into North Korea?

An undercover BBC journalist surreptitiously entered North Korea with group of students attending the London School of Economics. Was he right to do so?

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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.

Were these very real dangers worth the risk? Calling his soon-to-be-aired documentary "an important piece of public interest journalism," Sweeney told a BBC radio station that he and BBC officials considered the hazards — even those to which the LSE students were exposed — an appropriate cost of documenting the conditions inside North Korea. "We think the risks as we explained them to the students were justified. Had we had any suggestion that lives were at risk or anything approaching that ... then we wouldn't have gone anywhere near this," he said.

The other, and perhaps more pressing, ethical consideration is North Korea itself, whose inner workings form the subject of Sweeney's documentary. The secluded military state operates almost entirely as a black site, hidden from international scrutiny, and systemically dispatches dissidents, including Christians, to brutal working camps where prisoners carry out life sentences. North Koreans continue to suffer from food shortages instigated by a state-sponsored rationing system. The country's leaders delight in threatening both the U.S. and its geographic neighbors with nuclear annihilation. In light of these actions and threats (vaporous as they may be), you can begin to see how Sweeney and the BBC justified the trip, and the alleged deceptions involved in arranging it. The Associated Press recently opened a Pyongyang bureau, and Vice arranged a trip with Dennis Rodman for its new HBO show, but the truth about North Korea has been beyond difficult to report from inside actual North Korea.

LSE officials seem aware of the complex nature of the information machine. In the same email delivered to students, officials said that the school remains "fully supportive of the principle of investigative journalism in the public interest" but that placing LSE students in harm's way was an unacceptable way to do so. Furthermore, one official told several outlets that the BBC's actions were "ethically reckless" and amounted to employing the school's students as a "human shield." That's true, and ironically so. By filming undercover, Sweeney may have been placing students at risk, however small, of encountering the same abuses he was there to chronicle.

So far the blowback has been pretty tame. The Guardian says that students on the trip have received vague "threats" from the North Korean government, and quoted the Director of the LSE as saying, "We already have heard from students who had trips [planned] in the summer who are being advised to cancel them. ... Lots of countries will now be problematic because of John Sweeney and the Panorama programme which the BBC has stood by."

The United States seems exempt from this new agenda — at least for now. Former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman plans to re-visit the country and his No. 1 fan Kim Jong-Un, sans his usual media entourage, in early August.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.