BBC sorry over North Korea Panorama

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The BBC has apologised to the London School of Economics and to one of its students over an undercover programme-making trip to North Korea.

A Panorama team spent eight days in the country, pretending to be part of a group of LSE students and post-graduates on an organised study tour while it secretly gathered material for a programme broadcast last April.

But the BBC Trust has pointed to a 'serious failing' on the part of the BBC, which failed to make the students aware of all the risks the BBC presence - including well-known investigative journalist John Sweeney and a cameraman - created.

It judged that students had been given 'insufficiently clear and inadequate' information for them to be able to give their informed consent to the trip.

LSE email

Responding to complaints from the university and the father of one of the students, the trust also agreed that the LSE's reputation could have been harmed due to factors linking the institution to the tour.

The trust highlighted the fact that the LSE address was used on BBC visa applications, while Sweeney's application suggested he was a fellow of the university, which had not organised the trip.

The trust did recognise that 'some form of deception' was necessary in order for the BBC team to enter North Korea to make a programme that it deemed was in the public interest, coming in the wake of a concerted campaign of nuclear testing by Kim Jong-Un's regime and his inflammatory rhetoric against the USA.

It also noted that the programme team had followed appropriate procedures in planning the trip, referring upwards where necessary. 'However, the BBC failed to consider a number of important issues and risks,' it said, 'and failed to deal with them appropriately.'

The trust said there was a conflict of interest in the role of Tomiko Newson, who led the tour but was also employed by Panorama. This may have affected her ability to act in the best interests of the students had the journalists been detected, felt the trust, stating that the BBC should have ensured the trip had an independent leader.

'Discovering stories in difficult or dangerous places is one of the BBC's greatest strengths,' said Alison Hastings, chair of the editorial standards committee.

'There was a real public interest in making this programme in North Korea but, in the trust's view, the BBC failed to ensure that all the young adults Panorama travelled with were sufficiently aware of any potential risks to enable them to give informed consent. This was a serious failing, and the BBC is right to apologise to the complainants.'

Fair treatment

BBC News said it accepted the trust's decision in full.

'We are pleased that the trust found that there was a clear and strong public interest in commissioning and broadcasting the programme and that the correct referral procedures and processes were followed by the programme team and senior management,' it said in a statement. 'We also accept, however, that aspects of the BBC's handling of the project fell short in a number of areas, with the trust finding against the BBC on four of its 21 rulings.'

It said it had apologised to the complainants for its failings.

'The Trust recognised that this programme involved a number of finely-balanced editorial judgements and that the BBC spent considerable time evaluating the risks in circumstances which were highly unusual,' it added. 'In the planning for and making of the programme BBC News believed that it was treating all the students and the LSE fairly.'

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