A BBC Panorama documentary about North Korea which was accused of putting university students at risk has been found in breach of a number of the broadcaster's editorial guidelines by the BBC Trust.
The report about life in the secretive communist country, broadcast last April, saw reporter John Sweeney spend eight days undercover in North Korea.
In order to gain entry into the country, Sweeney and a Panorama producer joined a group of London School of Economics students and postgraduates and pretended to be part of their trip.
They accompanied the students as they travelled around the country on an organised tour given by North Korean guides and they filmed with conventional tourist cameras.
The LSE claimed at the time of broadcast that key information was withheld from students, who were placed in danger. Alex Peters-Day, general secretary of the LSE Students' Union, accused the BBC of using the students as "human shields".
The BBC Trust's editorial standards committee ruled today that while there was a strong public interest in the programme, the broadcaster "failed to consider a number of important issues and risks, and to deal with them appropriately".
It said the "provision of information to the students who took part in the trip was insufficient and inadequate; and the use of the LSE’s address details on the programme teams’ visa applications was inappropriate".
The Trust received complaints from the LSE and the father of one of the students on the trip.
The father concerned said in a statement today: "I am pleased that the Trust has now found what the LSE, my daughter and I already knew: that the BBC acted inappropriately in a number of respects relating to this trip.
"When news of BBC involvement in the North Korea trip emerged I was very concerned that the BBC had so obviously risked the lives of these students in an ill-conceived scheme of questionable journalistic value.
"My daughter was likewise deeply troubled by the impact this secretly filmed programme may have had on the North Korean guides and their families. Each were decent ordinary people trying to conduct their lives under Kim Jong-Un’s repressive regime."
He said the students were used as "human fodder" and "it is worrying to now also learn that the BBC had no exit plan for the students".
The university said at the time of broadcast 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.
Chair of the BBC Trust editorial standards committee, Alison Hastings, said in today's ruling
: "Discovering stories in difficult or dangerous places is one of the BBC's greatest strengths.
"There was a real public interest in making this programme in North Korea but, in the Trust's view, the BBC failed to ensure that all the young adults Panorama travelled with were sufficiently aware of any potential risks to enable them to give informed consent.
"This was a serious failing, and the BBC is right to apologise to the complainants."
The BBC said in a statement: "BBC News accepts in full the Trust decision on Panorama’s North Korea Undercover programme broadcast on 15 April 2013. We are pleased that the Trust found that there was a clear and strong public interest in commissioning and broadcasting the programme and that the correct referral procedures and processes were followed by the programme team and senior management.
"We also accept, however, that aspects of the BBC’s handling of the project fell short in a number of areas, with the Trust finding against the BBC on 4 of its 21 rulings.
"In particular we have apologised to Student X for the finding by the Trust that insufficient information was given to her ahead of the trip about the involvement of the BBC journalists and the potential risks, which meant that Student X did not have sufficient knowledge on which to give informed consent. We have also apologised to the LSE for the Trust’s finding that the programme created the risk of harm to the LSE’s reputation.
"The Trust recognised that this programme involved a number of finely-balanced editorial judgements and that the BBC spent considerable time evaluating the risks in circumstances which were highly unusual. In the planning for and making of the programme BBC News believed that it was treating all the students and the LSE fairly."
Director of the LSE, Professor Craig Calhoun, said: "LSE welcomes the finding of the Editorial Standards Committee and the letter of apology issued to the school by the BBC Executive.
"LSE would like to confirm its strong support for the production of programmes in the public interest and for journalists working to highlight important issues in dangerous parts of the world."
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