Deceiving North Korea

by BINOY KAMPMARK

The BBC has become whipping boy of the squeamish, the education establishment and parents.  Some of the battering of late has been deserved – an appallingly indifferent culture to the sexual wiles of the late Jimmy Savile was the most conspicuous example about how things went so wrong at the Beeb.  With a new leader at the helm, Lord Tony Hall, the Beeb has been sprucing up, though coverage of Baroness Thatcher’s death and funeral was never going to make the BBC-bashers happy.

Another controversy has been added to the assembly line of disgruntlement.  Education officials in Britain have taken issue with the way the Panorama program purportedly mislead 10 graduate students of the London School of Economics on a trip to North Korea.  The trip had been advertised by a Panorama producer “through the society mailing list”. The students, it is argued, were not privy to the undercover nature of the operation – that journalists were, in fact, making a documentary under the cover of an “education” mission.

Heady disagreement has been expressed over consent and what the students actually thought they were getting themselves into.  Legal eagles sharp on this always speak of fully informed disclosure about risks to the people concerned.  In the case of a journey to North Korea during the ongoing crisis, it would surely have been palpably obvious that some risk existed, irrespective of any dissimulation on the part of the Panorama producers.  Not so, claimed the LSE officials in an email to staff and students on Saturday.  “It is the LSE’s view that the students were not given enough information to enable informed consent, yet were given enough to put them in serious danger if the subterfuge had been uncovered prior to their departure from North Korea” (Guardian, 14 April).

The education officials (journalist accounts aptly call them “LSE managers”) feel that not enough was provided by way of information by journalist John Sweeney and his colleagues.  It was claimed that, initially, the students were told only one journalist would be travelling with them. A two-man film crew duly joined them, though apparently they were only told about this on a stopover in Beijing (The Telegraph, Apr 14).  Presto, and then they were three.

Alex Peters-Day of the LSE Students’ Union is outraged.  “I think the trip was organised by the BBC as a ruse to get into North Korea and that’s disgraceful.  They have used students essentially as a human shield.”  While Peters-Day has a point, it is worrying that the students she is describing are simulating permanent imbecility.  If that was the case, then we might has well ditch the idea of consent altogether.

Three students and one parent have lodged complaints about the BBC; a few have received “threatening” emails from Pyongyang, who has, in any case, been in the business of threatening everybody for sometime now.  LSE managers have been miffed that they were kept in not-so-blissful ignorance.  Some fear – like Professor George Gaskell – that the trip threatens LSE employees in “various other sensitive countries”.

Sweeney was certainly cheeky by describing himself as “Dr John Paul Sweeney, PhD history”, using an alumnus email account in pulling off the ruse.  In so doing, he managed to convince both the North Korean authorities and the students that he was “the professor”, though again we are simply not sure how much was revealed. Sweeney has also reminded his detractors that the LSE is as pure as driven slush, run by managers who are happy to receive cash donations from the Gaddafi family and grant PhD degrees in suspicious circumstances.  Do not forget the Saif al-Islam controversy, ribs Sweeeney.  Politics can be a rum business.

Despite student naiveté  actual or alleged, the BBC was shoddy on the paperwork.  Managers love that sort of thing, and formality has been treated as golden here – the lack of written consent for one, imperilling the BBC stance.  The BBC did conduct a “risk assessment” of the trip, whatever that entailed, but it has not been deemed sufficient by its noisy detractors.

Sweeney claims enough by way of details of this undercover sojourn was provided.  The students were warned twice that they might face arrest.  A Panorama spokesman claimed that, “We recognised that because it would increase the risks of the trip, the students should be told in advance that a journalist intended to travel with them, in order to enable to make their decision about whether they wanted to proceed.”  Importantly, the students were reminded of this in time to adjust their plans, should they have felt compromised.

The calls to pull the program by the likes of LSE chairman Peter Sutherland are misguided, ignoring the value of the content to the means it was obtained.  “Authentic information is at a premium and everyone is back, safe and sound,” surmises an editorial for The Independent (Apr 14).  Hall has similarly explained to Sutherland by letter that there was a broader public interest in screening the documentary on Monday.

The editors at The Independent do have another point to make.  Had Sweeney’s own cover – not to mention that of his wife and cameraman – been blown in North Korea, “the whole group could have been in danger.”  Were the students merely the unwitting guinea pigs in an operation conducted more for BBC glory than LSE pride?  Responsibility can be such an onerous thing, though it is one that should be shared.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

 

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
July 29, 2015
Mike Whitney
The Politics of Betrayal: Obama Backstabs Kurds to Appease Turkey
Conn Hallinan
Ukraine: Close to the Edge
Joshua Frank
The Wheels Fell Off the Bernie Sanders Bandwagon
Rob Wallace
Neoliberal Ebola: the Agroeconomic Origins of the Ebola Outbreak
Stephen Lendman
The Show Trial of Saif Qaddafi: a Manufactured Death Sentence
Dmitry Kolesnik
The ‘Ichkerization’ Crime Wave in Ukraine
Joyce Nelson
Scott Walker & Stephen Harper: A New Bromance
Bill Blunden
The Red Herring of Digital Backdoors and Key Escrow Encryption
Thomas Mountain
The Sheepdog Politics of Barack Obama
Farzana Versey
A President and a Yogi: Abdul Kalam’s Symbolism
Norman Pollack
America’s Decline: Internal Structural-Cultural Subversion
Foday Darboe
How Obama Failed Africa
Cesar Chelala
Russia’s Insidious Epidemic
Tom H. Hastings
Defending Democracy
David Macaray
Why Union Contracts are Good for the Country
Virginia Arthur
The High and Dry Sierras
July 28, 2015
Mark Schuller
Humanitarian Occupation of Haiti: 100 Years and Counting
Lawrence Ware
Why the “Black Church” Doesn’t Exist–and Never Has
Peter Makhlouf
Israel and Gaza: the BDS Movement One Year After “Protective Edge”
Eric Draitser
China’s NGO Law: Countering Western Soft Power and Subversion
Paul Craig Roberts - Dave Kranzler
Supply and Demand in the Gold and Silver Futures Markets
Carl Finamore
Landlords Behaving Badly: San Francisco Too Valuable for Poor People*
Michael P. Bradley
Educating About Islam: Problems of Selectivity and Imbalance
Binoy Kampmark
Ransacking Malaysia: the Najib Corruption Dossier
Michael Avender - Medea Benjamin
El Salvador’s Draconian Abortion Laws: a Miscarriage of Justice
Jesse Jackson
Sandra Bland’s Only Crime Was Driving While Black
Cesar Chelala
Effect of Greece’s Economic Crisis on Public Health
Mel Gurtov
Netanyahu: An Enemy of Peace
Joseph G. Ramsey
The Limits of Optimism: E.L. Doctorow and the American Left
George Wuerthner
Bark Beetles and Forest Fires: Another Myth Goes Up in Smoke
Harvey Wasserman
Will Ohio Gov. Kasich’s Anti-Green Resume Kill His Presidential Hopes?
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode 4, a Bowery Ballroom Blitz
July 27, 2015
Susan Babbitt
Thawing Relations: Cuba’s Deeper (More Challenging) Significance
Howard Lisnoff
Bernie Sanders: Savior or Seducer of the Anti-War Left?
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma’s Profiteers: You Want Us to Pay What for These Meds?
John Halle
On Berniebots and Hillary Hacks, Dean Screams, Swiftboating and Smears
Stephen Lendman
Cleveland Police Attack Black Activists
Joshua Sperber
What is a President? The CEO of Capitalism
Patrick Cockburn
Only Iraq’s Clerics Can Defeat ISIS
Ralph Nader
Sending a ‘Citizens Summons’ to Members of Congress
Clancy Sigal
Scratch That Itch: Hillary and The Donald
Colin Todhunter
Working Class War Fodder
Gareth Porter
Obama’s Version of Iran Nuke Deal: a Second False Narrative
Zoe Konstantopoulou
The Politics of Coercion in Greece
Vacy Vlanza
Without BDS, Palestine is Alone