The London School of Economics has hit back at students who accused the university of putting them at risk after they travelled to North Korea with a crew of undercover BBC journalists.
Six of the 10 students who made the trip to North Korea wrote an open letter to LSE saying the university's decision to publicly condemn the BBC for accompanying the students has put the students "in more risk than was originally the case". But now LSE has told the students: "This isn't just about you."
The BBC's John Sweeney poses with a North Korean soldier
Two students Hoe-Yeong Loke and Mila Akimova have named themselves in the letter, while the four others chose to remain anonymous.
The students criticised the university for "going public" without their permission and insist they were fully briefed about the journalists and the Panorama documentary, which saw journalist John Sweeney attempt to uncover "the real" North Korea.
"We valued the trip as a rare chance to see North Korea from the inside,” they wrote in the letter, which was addressed to LSE director Craig Calhoun and chairman Peter Sutherland. "Our main consideration here was that the BBC agreed that the documentary would not reveal our names or that of the LSE."
The criticism came after LSE sent an email to students and staff claiming the BBC had "recklessly endangered" students.
Craig Calhoun, director of LSE, wrote on Twitter:
The LSE has now responded with an open letter of its own, addressed to the student signatories. In the letter, seen by HuffPost UK, the students are told: "If anything’s clear from this sorry affair, it is that at least three of the participants in this visit contest the BBC’s account... All 10 of you were deliberately deceived, by the BBC’s own admission. You weren’t in a position to give informed consent."
The letter continues: "And it isn’t just about you. What the BBC have done has had implications for not just the whole LSE community, perhaps especially our academics, but for LSE as an institution and for independent academics more widely.
"Finally, we did not 'go public'. The BBC put us in an impossible position."
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. The university added it had no advance warning of the plan for journalists to pose as students, only being told a journalist would join the group tour.
Alex Peters-Day, General-Secretary of the LSE Students’ Union called the BBC "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."
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 is a graduate of LSE and has previously written articles about North Korea.
The email read: "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, 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."
The programme was broadcast on BBC One on Monday night, with a BBC spokesperson saying: ""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."
The LSE's letter in full reads:
Dear Hoe-Yeong, Mila and others unnamed,
Thank you for your message. The Chairman and the Director of LSE have already made their positions clear on several occasions, so I have been asked to reply on behalf of the School in this instance.
We were first alerted to this issue on the weekend of 6-7 April. By 9 April we had met, emailed, or texted all students in the party and have to date had contact in one form or other with eight or their parents (bear in mind that it was and still is the Easter vacation and the School authorities had no information about this visit or who was on it beforehand).
I respect your understanding of the situation. But if anything’s clear from this sorry affair, it is that at least three of the participants in this visit contest the BBC’s account. The BBC have admitted that they did not inform you in writing or seek your consent in writing. They claim that the failure to inform you fully even in the oral briefings was for your own protection. We believe you were told enough to get you into trouble but not enough to let you make an informed decision about the risks. As none of us in the LSE administration was present at any stage, we can only say that the facts are disputed – fiercely. And if the BBC had laid out the full risks and sought consent in writing, we suspect there would have been second thoughts.
All this is by the by. All ten of you were deliberately deceived, by the BBC’s own admission. You weren’t in a position to give informed consent.
And it isn’t just about you. What the BBC have done has had implications for not just the whole LSE community, perhaps especially our academics, but for LSE as an institution and for independent academics more widely.
Finally, we did not “go public”. The BBC put us in an impossible position. We knew that LSE would be publicly identified if any LSE students were recognisable on Panorama (several were). And even if they weren’t, the North Korean regime had threatened to reveal the details of all of you on the visit, and how the journalists gained entry to North Korea by claiming to be LSE students or staff. We made strong private representations to the BBC on 9 and 10 April. Journalists were already contacting us from 12 April onwards but we did not comment as we were awaiting the BBC’s response. That came on 13 April. We then had a duty of care to staff and students to warn them of the consequences, and later that day we did through an internal email.
Director of External Relations