Did BBC use LSE students as 'human shield' on N Korea trip?
Broadcaster says reporter posing as academic is justified, but were students properly informed?
AN UNDERCOVER documentary filmed in North Korea by a BBC Panorama reporter posing as a London School of Economics academic will go to air tonight despite a deepening row over whether the subterfuge put students at risk.
Veteran correspondent John Sweeney (above) accompanied a group of 10 LSE students on an eight-day trip to the pariah state in March. Journalists cannot obtain visas to visit North Korea, but students and academics can. The LSE says Sweeney described himself on his visa application as an "LSE student, PhD in history" and gave as his address a room number at the university is used by a member of its academic staff, The Guardian reports.
Several students who went on the trip say Sweeney was repeatedly referred to as "professor" by his North Korean hosts.
The BBC insists the students aged 21-28 were fully informed about the journalist's involvement and were able to make an "informed decision" about the risks they faced. It was made clear to them that if the ruse was discovered they might be detained, the broadcaster says.
The students were told a BBC reporter would be filming an undercover documentary before they left the UK. In Beijing, en route to Pyongyang, they were told of Sweeney's identity and informed that two other journalists - Sweeney's wife, Tomiko, and Alexander Niakaris – were also accompanying them on the trip.
BBC head of news programmes Ceri Thomas said: "We told them [the students] there would be a journalist on the trip and, if that journalist was discovered, it could mean detention and that it could mean arrest."
But the LSE disputes whether the students gave their informed consent and accuses the broadcaster of "using deception from the outset". Three of the students have complained about the way the BBC used the trip as cover since returning home, the university says.
Students' union general secretary Alex Peters-Day accused the BBC of using the students as a "human shield" and said they had been lied to. She said all the LSE's future research was "now at risk".
LSE chairman Peter Sutherlan, has asked the BBC to shelve the programme, but his request has been denied by the BBC's director-general, Tony Hall, who insists there is a clear public interest in screening it due to the heightened tensions on the Korean peninsular. North Korea Uncovered will go to air on BBC 1 at the scheduled time of 8.30pm tonight.