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The Academic Implications of John Sweeney's North Korea Documentary

15/04/2013 12:29 BST | Updated 14/06/2013 10:12 BST

The decision of the BBC and John Sweeney to enter North Korea undercover with a group of LSE students raises a number of important questions relating to the ethics of the media. Chiefly whether they were putting the students in harm's way, but also if they'd made them fully aware of the risks involved beforehand.

However there are also issues here pertinent to academia. Academics rely on being able to visit authoritarian countries in order to better understand them. These trips are sometimes monitored, but it's still often an excellent opportunity for researchers to gather data that otherwise wouldn't be available, speak to citizens and scholars, and potentially cultivate future contacts. This has been the case throughout much of the 20th Century, and was particularly true during the Cold War when academics on both sides of the Iron Curtain established a dialogue through international exchanges. Admittedly there have been occasions in the past where academics have secretly been working for the intelligence services of their country, but these are usually few and far between.

However John Sweeney's undercover visit to North Korea, allegedly posing as a member of staff at the LSE, and surrounded by LSE students, could undermine the ability of academics to travel and research in certain places (especially for those working for the LSE). If I was the North Korean's I'd certainly think carefully about letting academics or students visit again anytime soon. It was already difficult to get in and now it'll be even harder.

This is problematic because academic careers are increasingly dependent on the ability to research and publish. The more barriers there are to gathering information on a particular subject, the more likely it is that academics will focus on something else. If access to North Korea becomes nigh on impossible, then increasing numbers of scholars might decide that it's not worth the trouble. For instance I have a colleague whose main research area used to be Russia, but he's now had to change it mainly because of visa difficulties.

This could have a knock on effect in the future. PhD students might decide they don't want to study a country they can't visit, and the ultimate upshot is that when governments turn to academic research in order to formulate policy, they'll find significantly less to draw on. Another point is that it's vital for the academic process that books and articles are peer reviewed. If less people work in this area then the potential number of scholars available for peer review becomes ever smaller, and the ability judge whether arguments and facts stand up to scrutiny is reduced.

I think I'd be more sympathetic to John Sweeney's position, that this was investigative reporting at its finest, if it was telling us something we didn't already know. The BBC's undercover investigation into the treatment of people in care homes was great journalism precisely because it was revealing hidden truths to us. Equally it would have been difficult to obtain the footage without some degree of subterfuge. In this case though, while subterfuge was used, I'd question whether it can be justified. The litmus test for John Sweeney's documentary has to be, does it really pull back the curtain of secrecy? If it doesn't then I fear that as well as making North Korea more paranoid and suspicious than ever before, he's also made it much more difficult for academics to do their job.