Editorial: John Sweeney's trip to North Korea raises more questions of risk and responsibility at the BBC

Without written consent from the students, the BBC has to face the unwelcome possibility one of its reporters risked not only his life, but the lives others

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Another new BBC Director General; another baptism of fire. Within two weeks of arriving at Broadcasting House, Lord Hall has two potentially explosive issues on his plate. The first – coverage of Baroness Thatcher’s death and her funeral – was always going to make for difficult judgement calls, but at least there was time to plan. The second has come seemingly out of nowhere, and concerns a trip to North Korea taken by the journalist John Sweeney and a camera crew. They travelled undercover with a group of graduate students; the film is to be shown on Panorama tonight.  

The question is not about the principle of a journalist working undercover. Mr Sweeney is by no means the first to do so, and – if North Korea remains as closed and prickly as it is – he will not be the last. Such reporting is as necessary as it is unwelcome to the country concerned. Calls for the film to be canned are misguided. Authentic information is at a premium and everyone is back, safe and sound.

But there are real questions relating to risk and responsibility. The London School of Economics denies responsibility, saying it did not organise or sponsor the group – it was promoted by a university society – and complains that the reputation of its academics for independence has been put at risk. These are legitimate points. The BBC, though, does have a case to answer. Mr Sweeney travelled with his wife and a cameraman. If found out, the whole group could have been in danger. If it turns out that the trip was organised essentially as a cover for the journalists, rather than the other way round, the BBC’s responsibility is all the greater.

All agree that the students were told about the journalists and given a chance to opt out. The BBC says it conducted a risk assessment, but did not ask the students for written consent. If it had, it would be on firmer ground. Without it, the BBC has to face the unpalatable possibility that one of its reporters risked not just his own life for a story – which would be his informed choice – but the lives of many others.

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