BBC insists Panorama North Korea programme will go on

Reporter John Sweeney spent eight days in North Korea for the programme

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The BBC says an edition of Panorama filmed secretly during a study trip to North Korea is due to be broadcast as planned, despite claims students may have been put in danger.

Three BBC journalists accompanied 10 London School of Economics students and spent eight days in the country.

The university and its students' union have demanded the corporation withdraw the programme.

But the BBC said the film was strongly in the public interest.

Alex Peters-Day, of the LSE students' union, said the programme should be dropped because students were lied to and could not give informed consent.

But BBC head of news programmes Ceri Thomas said the North Korean government was the only party the corporation had deceived.

He said the students had been informed of the risks on three separate occasions and authorisation for the trip had gone "right to the top" within the BBC.

"We think the risks as we explained them to the students were justified... but had we had any suggestion that lives were at risk... we wouldn't have gone anywhere near this," he said.

Alex Peters-Day, LSE students' union: "Students were lied to, they weren't able to give their consent"

"Our assessment was that, at most, the likelihood was deportation, but we explained to the students that the risks might go beyond that - might include arrest, detention and the possibility of not being allowed back into the country."

Nine of the students were aged 21-28 and one was 18, he said.

The programme, North Korea Undercover, is set to be broadcast amid rising tensions in the region caused by the secretive state testing a nuclear device and missile technology.

The BBC said the trip was organised by the wife of Panorama reporter John Sweeney. The couple spent eight days inside the country for the programme, along with a cameraman.

Mr Thomas said she had organised a similar trip for students a year earlier and the latest visit would have gone ahead even if Panorama had not been involved.

'Student welfare'

The LSE has complained that the students were not told there was an undercover team of three or that they were filming a high-profile documentary.

Analysis

Academic research is highly globalised, running across conflict zones and political divisions.

When modern wars sweep through a country, there can still be rearguards of scholars protecting the remains of centuries before, such as the ancient manuscripts rescued this year in Timbuktu, in Mali.

But while diplomats can claim diplomatic status and journalists can hold up a press card, there is no separately defined protected status for academics.

They can only rely on a kind of informal neutral status.

But there are plenty of blurred boundaries. Not least because knowledge can quite literally be explosive.

Overseas students in the UK have to be vetted before they can take "sensitive subjects" on a specified list, designed to stop students being used to obtain technology for nuclear or biological warfare.

Mr Thomas acknowledged the students had initially been told there was one journalist but that, when they were in Beijing before flying into Pyongyang, they were told there would be three journalists.

He said three of the students had since asked "that their images be taken out" and that they would be "pixellated or blobbed".

But the "public interest arguments" for making and showing the programme were "overwhelming", he added.

Students' union general secretary Ms Peters-Day - who was not on the trip - told the BBC News Channel: "One of the students made it absolutely clear that she was not made aware of what happened.

"For us, this is a matter of student welfare - students were lied to, they weren't able to give their consent."

She added: "I think the trip was organised by the BBC as potentially a ruse for them to get into North Korea and that's disgraceful.

"They've used students essentially as a human shield in this situation."

'Damaged reputation'

Sir Peter Sutherland, chairman of the LSE's board of governors, said the programme created "unacceptable risks" for the school's reputation and the students involved.

"The BBC unscrupulously used a number of students as human cover for a filming operation without fully informing all of them what was happening," he said.

"If academics cannot go to any part of the world on the basis of trust in terms of what they say they are doing and what they are about, this undermines the integrity of the institution."

Meanwhile Universities UK, the umbrella body for UK universities, said it regretted "the BBC's approach in this matter".

Panorama reporter John Sweeney said the majority of the students he had travelled with supported the programme.

"What the LSE is saying we dispute," he told BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House programme.

Are you a student at LSE? Did you go on the trip? Have you travelled to North Korea on another trip organised for students? Send us your thoughts and experiences using the form below.

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