On the road to Pyongyang

Why what John Sweeney did matters

This Monday the BBC broadcast a documentary piece, filmed undercover in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), as part of its Panorama series. The documentary attracted considerable criticism from academics for the unacceptable methods used by the show’s reporter. After summarising what John Sweeney – the show’s producer and reporter – did, I’ll explain why the whole debate that followed really matters.

John Sweeney has been seen as responsible for two pieces of bad practice. Firstly, he lied about being an academic from the London School of Economics in order to access North Korea. Journalists, especially those with investigative backgrounds, find it nearly impossible to get visas. Secondly, he accessed the DPRK as part of a university trip. The amount real students on the trip were informed about the risks is debatable, their safety not necessarily ensured. Sweeney has said that because they all got back safely it doesn’t matter.

Anger from academics and students alike was quick to show up on Twitter. The debate was covered by rolling news and made many front pages. But was this just fodder for a slow news day? I believe Sweeney and the BBC truly endangered students’ lives and risked academic trust.

Many sources have suggested that the students on the trip were not fully informed of the nature of the journalism that was to take place. If this is the case, then it’s absolutely clear the trip should never have gone ahead. The risks of being caught with an investigative television journalist in the DPRK are huge. The BBC defends that it did inform students, but direct sources report to the contrary. The debate around the events of this trip is necessary to ensure that journalists never again endager the lives of bystanders.

To add insult to injury, BBC Head of Programmes Ceri Thomas said that risking lives is just to get a story. No journalism, no matter the story, is worth another human beings life. I simply cannot agree with any statement to the contrary. Investigatory journalists do great work but the risks they put themselves in are their own to dictate. Using students to access DPRK, which Sweeney undoubtedly did, put lives beyond his own in the balance.

The outcry to Thomas’s statement has been significant but, perhaps, the point can be lost. Students should never be in a position, risks explained or not explained, where they are endangered so that a journalist can get a story. It is not the decision of the BBC to determine an appropriate level of risk to any beyond its own staff. Even with the full facts members of the public are not necessarily able to decide what is safe. On this trip there should have been no journalists. Following his comments, Thomas should be out of a job.

The legacy of this trip is that academic trust will have been weakened. Academics are active across the world: indeed even in the most totalitarian states that remain. They are able to access these countries and do the good work that they do because their academic status is held in high esteem. For a real LSE academic, accessing DPRK just got a lot harder – Sweeney has destroyed academic trust.

The debate here is clear. Do we believe that academics should be protected, students entitled to safety, and ethical standards held up by our journalists? Or do we believe that anything is just in pursuit of hot news? I root for the former. This might not be the place for character assassinations, but John Sweeney has a lot to answer for.

Feature image from Flickr, inset front page of the ‘i’ on 15 Apr.