Editorial Standards Committee publishes findings on Panorama on North Korea

Date: 17.03.2014     Last updated: 03.11.2014 at 12.49

The Editorial Standards Committee has today published its finding on complaints related to Panorama: North Korea Undercover, which broadcast on BBC One on 15 April 2013.

In the programme, reporter John Sweeney spent eight days undercover in North Korea. In order to gain entry into the country, Sweeney and a Panorama cameraman/producer joined a group of current or former London School of Economics and Political Science (the LSE) students and post graduates led by a third member of the Panorama team, Tomiko Newson, and pretended to be part of their trip. They accompanied the students as they travelled around the country on an organised tour given by North Korean guides and they filmed with conventional tourist cameras.

The LSE and the father of one of the students on the trip made a series of complaints to the BBC. Both parties were dissatisfied with the BBC's responses and their complaints were accepted on appeal by the Trust's Editorial Standards Committee, as the third stage of the BBC's complaints process.

The committee's key findings were:

  • That there was a strong public interest in the programme, particularly in light of the circumstances surrounding North Korea's nuclear testing in late 2012 and early 2013.
  • Issues arose in the gathering, rather than in the broadcast, of material by the BBC.
  • The BBC spent considerable time evaluating the risks created by its presence on the trip to North Korea. The correct referral procedures and processes were followed.
  • However, the BBC failed to consider a number of important issues and risks, and failed to deal with them appropriately. In particular, the provision of information to the students who took part in the trip was insufficient and inadequate, and meant the daughter of the complainant did not possess the knowledge necessary to give informed consent.
  • The use of the LSE's address details on the programme teams' visa applications was inappropriate and this, combined with other factors, risked linking the LSE with the trip and resulted in unfair treatment to the LSE.
  • From the moment the BBC became involved in the trip to North Korea, Tomiko Newson (who was the trip organiser and tour leader) had a conflict of interest which was further compounded when she became employed by the BBC. The BBC should have ensured that there was someone independent of the programme team present to lead the trip.

The committee concluded that a number of the BBC's Editorial Guidelines had been breached.

Alison Hastings, Chair of the Editorial Standards Committee, said:

"Discovering stories in difficult or dangerous places is one of the BBC's greatest strengths. 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."