Deceiving North Korea


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

October 08, 2015
Michael Horton
Why is the US Aiding and Enabling Saudi Arabia’s Genocidal War in Yemen?
Ben Debney
Guns, Trump and Mental Illness
Pepe Escobar
The NATO-Russia Face Off in Syria
Yoav Litvin
Israeli Occupation for Dummies
Lawrence Davidson
Deep Poverty in America: the On-Going Tradition of Not Caring
Thomas Knapp
War Party’s New Line: Vladimir Putin is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
Brandon Jordan
Sowing the Seeds of War in Uruguay
Binoy Kampmark
Imperilled by Unfree Trade: the TPP on Environment and Labor
John McMurtry
The Canadian Elections: Cover-Up and Steal (Again)
Anthony Papa
Coming Home: an Open Letter to 6,000 Soon-to-be-Released Drug War Prisoners From an Ex-Con
Ramzy Baroud
Listen to Syrians: The Media Jackals and the People’s Narrative
Norman Pollack
Heart of Darkness: A Two-Way Street
Gilbert Mercier
Will Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite Militias Defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq?
John Stanton
Vietnam 2.0 and California Dreamin’ in Ukraine
William John Cox
The Pornography of Hatred
October 07, 2015
Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Witness to a Troubled Saint-Making: Junipero Serra and the Theology of Failure
Luciana Bohne
The Double-Speak of American Civilian Humanitarianism
Joyce Nelson
TPP: Big Pharma’s Big Deal
Jonathan Cook
Israel Lights the Touchpaper at Al-Aqsa Again
Joseph Natoli
The Wreckage in Sight We Fail To See
Piero Gleijeses
Cuba’s Jorge Risquet: the Brother I Never Had
Andrew Stewart
Do #BlackLivesMatter to Dunkin’ Donuts?
Rajesh Makwana
#GlobalGoals? The Truth About Poverty and How to Address It
Joan Berezin
Elections 2016: A New Opening or Business as Usual?
Dave Randle
The Man Who Sold Motown to the World
Adam Bartley
“Shameless”: Hillary Clinton, Human Rights and China
Binoy Kampmark
The Killings in Oregon: Business as Usual
Harvey Wasserman
Why Bernie and Hillary Must Address America’s Dying Nuke Reactors
Tom H. Hastings
Unarmed Cops and a Can-do Culture of Nonviolence
October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War