Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The LSE, the BBC, and North Korea: my response

Last April, when the BBC found itself embroiled in a row over its use of a visit to North Korea by students from the London School of Economics as cover for a Panorama team to slip in to the country, I wrote a piece in the Guardian defending its use of subterfuge.

Now the Editorial Standards Committee of the BBC Trust has found in favour of a complaint by the LSE and the father of one of the students involved. Its key ruling was: "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."

So was I wrong to defend the BBC? The corporation has apologised for the lapses in procedure identified by the editorial standards committee. Should I do the same?

In the Guardian, I wrote: "If the BBC is right in claiming that the students knew what was going on then surely it has no case to answer." Note the word "if".

It was alleged at the time that the Panorama team had joined the LSE group "without the knowledge or consent" of the students." My response was: "Not the way the BBC tells it. So far, it seems most of the students feel they were informed of the risks and were happy to go ahead." Again, note that I was basing my assessment on the version of events as provided by the BBC.

It now seems that what BBC executives were saying at the time was not entirely in accordance with the facts. The committee concluded that "there was some evidence that BBC staff had made statements about the trip to North Korea in the immediate aftermath of the trip that were subsequently shown not to have been entirely correct."

Confusion? Obfuscation? Cover-up? Probably a bit of all three. I still maintain that journalists are justified occasionally in using subterfuge to get to places where otherwise they might not gain access and that as I said at the time, the LSE was justified in feeling put out that they hadn't been told more about what the Panorama team were up to, but wrong to demand that the programme should be scrapped.

As for an apology, yes, I apologise for relying too heavily on what BBC executives were saying at the time, but my basic point remains: the LSE made far too much of a fuss and failed to recognise the value of journalistic access to closed societies like North Korea.

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