The BBC has walked into a fresh row after the London School of Economics accused it of using students as a shield on an undercover reporting trip to North Korea. It comes barely a fortnight after Tony Hall took up the helm at the state broadcaster warning that “there can be no complacency” in the battle to regain public trust.
Neither of the two bodies, both venerable British institutions, are strangers to controversy. But the LSE, once a hotbed of socialist activism, is now angered that the BBC refused to withdraw the Panorama documentary, due to be shown on Monday night, that was made from that trip and to make a full apology for endangering students during last month’s visit to the secretive and nuclear state.
In a memo to members of the LSE court of governors, the university said the chairman requested – but was refused – an apology “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”.
The row flared over a trip to North Korea in the last week of March in the name of the Grimshaw Club, a student society at LSE. Three journalists, rather than the one students were told about, also on the trip were working for or with the BBC to produce the North Korea Undercover Panorama programme.
LSE was further incensed by one of the journalists, John Sweeney, who – it says – gained entry as an LSE PhD student and gave his address as the LSE. “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,” said the university in the memo.
The BBC is unrepentant. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme, Mr Sweeney said: “For the LSE, to put words into the mouths of those LSE students …is extraordinary. For them to say kill this programme, that feels entirely wrong.
“What the LSE is saying we dispute. I can’t talk for those students – they are grown-up, they are brave and good people. All of those students could have dobbed me in, they didn’t. The majority of these students support this programme.”
In a statement, the BBC maintained it believed the actions of the programme team in relation to its contributors were proportionate to the subject matter.
“The public interest in broadcasting this programme is very strong indeed. It seeks to understand the North Korean government’s behaviour through exposing some aspects of life inside the country and is bringing that perspective to a general audience on BBC One and engaging them with the importance of what is happening in the region.”
The broascaster said the students had been told in advance about the increased risks of the trip including the risk of arrest and detention and that they might not be able to return to North Korea in the future. “They were told in good time in order for them to be able to make an informed decision about whether they wanted to proceed.”
Not everyone who took to Twitter on Sunday bought this line, however. “The biased BBC fail again and put students at risk,” stormed Labour Ruined The UK.
The BBC has spent much of the past year in the spotlight: over accusations that it sought to cover up allegations of sexual abuse committed by the late Jimmy Savile and over a Newsnight investigation that mistakenly linked a “senior Thatcher-era Tory” to alleged child abuse.
But not everyone was siding with LSE on Twitter. Scott Ciccone reckoned: “Rather than demanding an apology from the BBC, the LSE should be apologising to the British people for their pathetic attempts to stop us.”
And LSE itself has courted controversy. It accepted a £1.5m donation from the family of Muammer Gaddafi that may have been raised from bribes paid to the dictator’s family by companies seeking “business favours” from the regime, according to a 2011 independent report into the college’s links to Libya. That scandal led to the resignation of Sir Howard Davies as LSE director in March 2011.
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