THREE students have complained after their university study trip to North Korea was used as cover for a BBC documentary on the communist state.
Professor George Gaskell, pro-director at the London School of Economics (LSE), said the university authorities were unaware until last week that the BBC had used a ten-person party as cover for an eight-day trip by Panorama to the country.
The professor said that had veteran journalist John Sweeney been caught, the party – which included an 18-year-old student – could have found themselves held in solitary confinement in a North Korean prison.
Yesterday, BBC head of programmes Ceri Thomas implied the students had been paid for their co-operation, when he said that “no money changed hands” until the corporation had talked to them twice before they left London.
He also admitted the students were not told about a two-man film crew on the trip until they arrived in Beijing, en route to Pyongyang.
The LSE is calling for the BBC to pull the documentary, which is due to be broadcast tonight.
Prof Gaskell said it could jeopardise the work of LSE academics in sensitive countries, including China. The BBC has already agreed to blur the images of the three students who have complained.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The World this Weekend, Prof Gaskell said: “We were told the BBC had undertaken a risk assessment and that it had been approved at the highest level.
“LSE believes that any reasonable assessor of risk, or indeed any parent contemplating their son or daughter going on such a trip with the involvement of the BBC, would have thought the risks quite unacceptable.
“The chairman of our council, Peter Sutherland, wrote to Lord Patten [chairman of BBC Trust] and said that in view of this deception, the LSE received an unqualified apology from the BBC.
“I think there is less danger to students than there is to my colleagues. Some of my colleagues are in Africa, China and various other sensitive countries.
“If their independence and integrity is challenged, they may find themselves in considerable risk.”
He added: “I think the situation in which the students found themselves was potentially extremely dangerous.
“Had we been wondering about how we were going to get these students out of solitary confinement in some North Korean jail, I think the students’ view on whether it was such a good idea might have been quite different.”
But Mr Thomas said the documentary was a “very important piece of public-interest journalism”, saying that the access the trip provided – which would not have been given to a journalist – justified putting the students at risk.
He said: “There were ten students. We talked to them twice before they left London, before any money changed hands.
“We told them there would be a journalist on the trip and that if that journalist was discovered it could mean detention, that it could mean arrest.
“They were consenting to the risks that were implicit of having a journalist on that trip.”
He added: “These were not teenagers just out of school. The youngest was 18, and we know for a fact that he or she specifically consulted his or her parents before agreeing to go on the trip.
“I would say that the only people we deceived were the North Korean government.”