Why is the LSE Making Such a Fuss About BBC Footage Of North Korea?

In a recent video aired by the BBC, reporter John Sweeney provides a remarkable firsthand view into the bleak state of affairs inside North Korea’s secretive borders. But the London School of Economics claims BBC journalists used a students’ trip as cover without full consent to film the trip, and is calling on the news outlet to remove the clip.

The video is eerily quiet. Sweeney almost whispers as he narrates initial images of a deserted city square in which the regime appears to be testing loudspeakers, reverberating through empty streets. “You can feel the tension,” he notes, explaining that journalists remain “all but banned here … so I went in with a tour group …”

The footage shows quick glimpses into North Korean industry, a deserted factory, a hospital with some advanced equipment but, somewhat inexplicably, no patients. “We travelled through a landscape bleak beyond words,” he goes on to explain as the camera pans the streets. 

As images begin to focus on scenes of poverty a guard is heard yelling from a distance: “No photos, No photos!” Short interview footage of with an ex-prisoner reveals sickening allegations of mass graves nearby, holding at least 80 corpses. The interview ends on a hopeful note, in which Sweeney insists his discovery of a phone near the Southern border picking up signals from below the 38th parallel provides “signs that the regime’s icy grip on information is beginning to crack.”

To many onlookers, this type of footage provides rare insight that is incredibly valuable, providing a first-hand glimpse into affairs in the secretive state. But harsh criticism regarding the manner in which the footage was collected threatens to hamper the BBC'attempts to publicize the footage.

While is clear that Sweeney and his BBC team used a London School of Economics tour as cover for filming, the extent to which the BBC gained appropriate consent from the group for its documentary mission remains unclear. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of “Universities UK” which represents the LSE (among others), said the BBC ignored the risks of overstepping its boundaries in filming, saying  such carelessness "May have damaged our universities' reputations overseas."

British academics echoed this fear, claiming, "The ability of academics to work, study and carry out research around the world is hugely dependent on trust and respect for their integrity, and it is vital that this trust is not undermined.”

Still others have protested that the reporting may have put not only the school’s reputation but also the lives of the students. Craig Calhoun, Director of the LSE, told the Guardian that students have been receiving threats since their return, explaining, “We have received complaints from North Korean authorities — and some of the students who went on the trip have received threats. They have received letters," adding some LSE students are being advised to cancel future trips due to security concerns over the matter.

The extent to which “consent” was communicated remains unclear, and Calhoun admits there are “several different stories” regarding the communications between students and the BBC regarding the trip. One student told the U.K.’s Daily Mail that he was duped into believing Sweeney was a history professor during the trip, although the BBC vehemently denies such claims, saying appropriate communications were secured between the students and filmmakers. The Grimshaw Club, LSE’s international relations club which was being reported as playing a role in organizing the trip, has released a statement this Saturday it was “not involved” in the planning of the trip, and merely played a hand in advertising it to students, contrary to reports. Sweeney insists that the majority of the students he travelled with supported the BBC’s documentary program, telling BBC Radio 4 “What the LSE is saying we dispute.”

The story reveals an ongoing tension between academics and professional journalists eager to gain a glimpse inside the most repressive regimes. The issue is also of pressing concern in other places like Syria where outside journalists are banned from entry. It may take innovative partnerships between unlikely groups to gain a coveted view into these regimes, footage that is incredibly valuable to international societies and governments alike in the face of rising human rights abuses.

But controversy that may arise from this risky behavior could harm already tenuous potential for future visits from international observers. The issue is a much-needed reminder that international journalists in these regions not only face grave personal risk, but also tow a difficult line considering potential impact on the range of individuals and institutions that are becoming increasingly involved in this ever-important work.