LONDON, UK — Last month, filmmaker John Sweeney traveled with a group of students from the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE) on a government-sanctioned tour of North Korea.
Sweeney’s resulting 30-minute documentary on the secretive, oppressive state is set to air tonight at 8:30 p.m. on the BBC’s Panorama program.
But staff and students at LSE are protesting the film’s showing, saying the students were misled about the intentions of Sweeney and his colleagues. They claim the filmmakers used them as “human shields” for otherwise prohibited journalism without their knowledge or consent — a claim the filmmakers protest — and that the BBC’s actions endangered the students, the school and the future of such visits for all institutions.
Speaking to the Guardian newspaper from New York, LSE director Craig Calhoun said that some of the 10 students who went on the trip have received threatening letters since the filmmakers’ presence was uncovered, and that the North Korean government has complained.
“We already have heard from students who had trips [planned] in the summer who are being advised to cancel them,” Calhoun told the newspaper. “It affects not just the LSE and North Korea, it affects trips that are not undercover or spying trips. Lots of countries will now be problematic because of John Sweeney and the Panorama program which the BBC has stood by.”
The only party deceived in the affair, the BBC counters, was the North Korean government.
Students were informed on three separate occasions that there would be journalists traveling with them and that as a result they could risk deportation, arrest and possibly detention, said Ceri Thomas, the BBC’s head of news programming.
The trip took place March 23-30. According to multiple reports, it was organized by Tomiko Newson, an LSE alum who is married to John Sweeney. Newson contacted the Grimshaw Club, an international relations-focused student society at LSE, to invite interested students on a trip she was organizing, the Guardian newspaper reported.
“The Grimshaw Club is happy to announce that our members will have the chance to explore NORTH KOREA this year again!” said an email sent to members in January.
In a message posted on its Facebook page, the Grimshaw Club disavowed any organizational role in the trip, saying only that it agreed to pass along information.
“An LSE alum told us about the trip and we advertised as it an opportunity to our mailing list and our Facebook page that may be of interest to our members,” the club wrote.
Ultimately, 10 students aged 18 to 28 paid to come on the trip. The BBC has reported in its own coverage of the affair that students were told prior to leaving that there would be one journalist traveling with them. When they got to Beijing, their last stop before Pyongyang, they learned there would actually be three journalists: Sweeney, Newson and BBC cameraman Alexander Niakaris.
The students were not given more information in order to protect them in case the ruse was discovered, the Guardian reported, citing a “BBC source.”
“BBC staff have argued that this lack of frankness in denying the genuine members of the group the full details was done for their own benefit in the event of discovery and interrogation by North Korean authorities,” the LSE wrote in an email sent on Saturday to staff and students.
“It is 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.”