BBC reporter used students as ‘human shield’

Behind enemy lines: A potential disguise John Sweeney did not use in his undercover report.

When reporter John Sweeney used a group of students as cover for his film on North Korea, he put their lives in danger. Last night, the programme was screened – was it worth the risk?

There is no country in the world where journalists receive a frostier welcome than the militaristic, repressive, totalitarian state of North Korea. Access to the country is all but forbidden, and those who do visit are restricted to an official tour guided by employees of the state. No encounter can take place without official approval, and unauthorised filming or interviews are out of the question.

So when investigative journalist John Sweeney set his sights on making a documentary to shed light on life in the closed state, he decided to look beyond the official channels. He contacted a group of students who were travelling to North Korea and arranged to join their group, ditching his journalistic identity and allowing officials to believe that he was a member of the London School of Economics.

It was a daring plan. When two American journalists were caught illegally crossing the North Korean border from China in 2009, they were sentenced to 12 years hard labour in one of the country’s infamous prison camps. Only an emergency visit from former US president Bill Clinton secured their release.

If Sweeney’s cover had been blown, he would probably have been punished at least as harshly. And at a time when North Korea’s aggression is dominating the international news, a diplomatic effort to secure his release might have proved impossible.

Brave? Undoubtedly. But there is a problem: it was not only his own life that Sweeney was putting at risk. If he had been caught, the LSE students with whom he was travelling would also have been in serious trouble for agreeing to provide his cover.

Academics and students at the LSE are furious. They claim that their students were not properly informed of the dangers: although Sweeney told them he was attending, the undercover filming remained a secret.

No harm came to the group, and despite loud calls to cancel the Panorama documentary, the BBC went ahead and screened it last night. But the debate is far from over.

The price of truth?

This is shockingly unethical, say LSE staff: for the sake of a few moments of journalistic intrigue, the BBC risked the lives of innocent young people and compromised the reputation of a great academic institution. Going ‘undercover’ might sound glamorous; but playing games with monstrous dictators is deeply irresponsible, while putting the lives of others at risk is plain wrong.

But when the BBC news editor was asked for a response, he had a different perspective: the danger was worth it, he said, if a story could shed light on such a dangerous and secretive nation as North Korea. Hard-hitting investigative journalism is about uncovering hidden truths; that’s a serious and necessary business, and it can’t be done without risk.

You Decide

  1. Is good journalism worth risking lives for?
  2. Is it wrong to publish information which has been obtained using unethical methods?


  1. Imagine your class is the group of students asked by John Sweeney to travel to North Korea. Hold a debate over whether to accept his proposal.
  2. Make a factfile on North Korea, with as much information as you can find about how the country works.

Some People Say...

“In the pursuit of truth the ends justify the means.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How is a story about North Korea in the interest of the British public?
Because North Korea is a threat to the security of the entire world. For two decades, the communist state has been developing increasingly powerful nuclear capacities. Now it has declared a ‘state of war’ with South Korea. Another missile test may be imminent, and world leaders are rattled.
Scary. Can a TV documentary help?
One of the reasons people are wary of North Korea is that nobody truly knows how the state functions or what its motives are. The more we can learn about what goes on behind North Korea’s veil of secrecy, the better we are equipped to react to threats and provocations. On the other hand, this documentary may disrupt diplomatic efforts to communicate peacefully with North Korea.

Word Watch

North Korea
The so-called ‘hermit state’ has been ruled by the Kim dynasty of communist dictators since 1948. They rule using a mixture of all-pervasive propaganda and brutal police repression, keeping the country totally isolated from the outside world.
Investigative journalist
A reporter who takes a single issue, event or area and tries to discover as much as possible about it. That might mean gaining access to areas that are hard to reach, interviewing sources off the record or examining complex or confidential documents.
London School of Economics
The LSE is the most selective university in the UK, and attracts high academic achievers from all over the world.
North Korea’s aggression
North Korea has been in a state of hostility with the the capitalist world for decades. But its new young leader Kim Jong-un has become particularly bellicose in recent months, producing a string of alarming threats aimed at South Korea and the USA. Many analysts believe that yet another missile test could occur today.
Academics and students
Three of the ten students objected after discovering that secret filming had been taking place during the trip, but the student union and the university directorate have joined forces to condemn John Sweeney and the BBC.

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