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LSE Fury At BBC Journalists Who Joined North Korea Student Trip

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The London School of Economics has expressed fury at BBC journalists who went undercover on a student trip to North Korea, claiming the corporation recklessly endangered students.

north korea bbc

The BBC's John Sweeney poses with a North Korean soldier

In a angry email to students and staff, the university said Panorama reporter John Sweeney posed as one of its PhD students on a university society trip in order to film undercover in the country.

Sweeney has disputed LSE's version of events, and the BBC said that students were informed of the risks and that transmission would go ahead.

Two other journalists accompanied the trip, Alexander Niakaris and Tomiko Sweeney in an undercover investigation "approved at the highest level".

A senior source at LSE told HuffPost UK they had seen the "ominous" emails sent from DPRK officials to students on the trip, which had deeply worried the university, adding that emails "effectively said they'll be very angry if this documentary goes ahead."

The school claims that students "were not given enough information to enable informed consent, yet were given enough to put them in serious danger."

Craig Calhoun, director of LSE, wrote on Twitter:


Craig Calhoun
Producers of Panorama seem not to have learned any lessons from recent BBC scandals. Consciously chose to endanger LSE students. For what?

By posing as a PhD student, LSE said Sweeney had endangered not only their students, but the "academic integrity" of its staff who study North Korea and other "politically sensitive" areas of the world, where academics are regularly regarded with suspicion.

Alex Peters-Day, General-Secretary of the LSE Students’ Union called the corporation "reckless and ethically reprehensible."

She added: “It was not the BBC’s place to make decisions on behalf of the students on the trip, nor was it the BBC’s place to put at risk all those within the School".

“I am just glad we are not facing a situation where our students are being detained in North Korea."

LSE claims it had no advance warning of the programme, and the plan for journalists to pose as students, only being told that a journalist would join the group tour.

The Grimshaw Society, the LSE society alleged to have organised the trip, said in a statement which seemed to defend the BBC that they had never touted the trip as an official LSE student event: "We had no organisational responsibilities with this trip, and no Grimshaw resources or branding were used for this trip.

"An LSE alum told us about the trip and we advertised as it an opportunity to our mailing list and our Facebook page that may be of interest to our members; but we at no point had any organisational involvement with the trip.

"In other words, there was no institutional involvement on our part whatsoever and the trip participants were aware of that."

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In the original email about the trip to North Korea, sent from the Grimshaw Society, seen by HuffPost UK, no mention is made of a journalist accompanying the trip.

It does however state that the trip is organised by Tomiko Newson, John Sweeney's wife, who lectures at the LSE and has written articles previously about North Korea, and mention may well have been made about journalistic involvement at a later date.

It says: "As you are all aware, North Korea is a very unique destination and we are extremely pleased that Tomiko Newson, who organised the trip last year, together with another former Grimshaw member XXXXX, are willing to organise this trip!

"Due to the administration and bureacratic policies, the time frame is very limited so any applications have to be sumbitted no later than Friday 1st Feb."

BBC director general Lord Hall has refused its request to withdraw the programme which includes undercover footage that will be broadcast in North Korea Undercover on BBC One on Monday night.

A BBC spokesman said transmission would go ahead. He added: "We recognised that because it could increase the risks of the trip, the students should be told in advance that a journalist intended to travel with them, in order to enable the students to make their decision about whether they wanted to proceed.

"They were given this information, and were reminded of it again, in time to have been able to change their plans if they wanted to.

"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."

LSE student union newspaper the Beaver quotes a student who spoke to the paper on condition of anonymity as saying “there were very strict visa requirements and background checks… such as no journalistic background” to enter the country, “I didn’t make the first round of checks but was allowed in when someone dropped out [of the trip].”

Sweeney said on Twitter that he disputes the school's version of events.


john sweeney
The LSE put out a statement which we dispute. We did go to North Korea Undercover. The North Korean agency unhappy

john sweeney
has been under pressure from North Korean agency to kill North Korea Undercover. Watch our programme, Monday, BBC1, 8.30pm.

Jay Stoll, General Secretary Elect of LSE, told HuffPost UK: "The BBC's actions were completely reckless. Whilst there is a precedent for journalists using academic cover for investigative pieces, it is not acceptable to have done so without the consent of the students.

"A fully apology should be issued for risking their welfare, but also for risking future research projects in regions that LSE is a global leader in commissioning".

A petition, signed by more than 250 people, has been launched by LSE Government student Jason Wong, a member of the University's Court of Governors to ask the BBC to pull the programme.

Wong told HuffPost UK: "In the upcoming Court of Governors meeting with the School Director, I will propose revoking the alumni status of John Sweeney.

"He is as unwelcome to be associated with the LSE as Saif al-Islam Gaddafi."

The letter in full reads:

The School wishes to alert all staff and students to a serious development which may affect them personally in future. This relates to the conduct of the BBC in respect of a Panorama programme entitled North Korea Undercover, which is due to be shown next Monday evening, 15 April.

The programme has been produced using as cover a visit to North Korea which took place from 23-30 March 2013 in the name of the Grimshaw Club, a student society at LSE. The School authorities had no advance knowledge of the trip or of its planning.

The visiting party included Mr John Sweeney, Mr Alexander Niakaris and Ms Tomiko Sweeney. In advance of the trip it was not known to the rest of the party that they were three journalists working for or with the BBC. Their purpose, posing as tourists, was to film and record covertly during the visit in order to produce the Panorama programme.

LSE's chief concerns are twofold. First, at no point prior to the trip was it made clear to the students that a BBC team of three had planned to use the trip as cover for a major documentary to be shown on Panorama. BBC staff have admitted that the group was deliberately misled as to the involvement of the BBC in the visit. The line used was that "a journalist" would join the visit.

BBC staff have argued that this lack of frankness in denying the genuine members of the group the full details was done for their own benefit in the event of discovery and interrogation by North Korean authorities.

It is LSE's view that 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.

BBC staff asserted in a meeting with LSE management on 9 April 2013 that the BBC had undertaken its own risk assessment in advance of the trip, which had been approved at the highest level. LSE believes that a reasonable assessor of risk, or indeed any parent contemplating their child's involvement in such an exercise, could only have concluded that the risks taken were unacceptable.

Our second major concern relates to information that came to light after the meeting on 9 April. This is that John Sweeney gained entry to North Korea by posing as a PhD student.

The North Korean authorities allege that he described his occupation for entry control purposes as "LSE student, PhD in History" and gave his address as that of LSE - including a specific office room number which is actually used by a genuine member of LSE staff.

Students report that the North Korean guides during the visit repeatedly addressed him as "Professor" and that he actively went along with that. John Sweeney graduated from LSE in 1980 with a BSc in Government.

He is not an LSE student. If he has a PhD in History (or anything else), it is not from LSE. He does not work for the LSE.

We have no information about how Mr Niakaris or Ms Sweeney may have described themselves in order to gain entry to North Korea, but no description of them as current LSE students or staff can have been accurate.

While this particular trip was run in the name of a student society, the nature of LSE's teaching and research means that aspects of North Korea are legitimate objects of study in several of our academic disciplines.

Indeed, LSE academics work on aspects of many politically sensitive parts of the world, including by travel to those locations.

It is vital that their integrity is taken for granted and their academic freedom preserved.

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, and very possibly of other countries where suspicion of independent academic work runs high.

Finally, LSE is aware of grave concerns about the actions of the BBC raised by at least two students who took part in the visit and the parents of one.

In light of all of the above, the Chairman of LSE asked the BBC on 10 April to withdraw the planned programme and issue a full apology to LSE for the actions of BBC staff in using the School and its good reputation as a means of deception. This endangered the students and could endanger academics in the future.

LSE deeply regrets that, earlier this afternoon, the Director-General of the BBC has refused the Chairman's request.

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. We cannot, however, condone the use of our name, or the use of our students, as cover for such activities.

The School stands ready to discuss with any student or member of staff who so wishes how best to address the possible difficulties which the actions of the BBC may entail for them in future.

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