A Panorama special with John Sweeney is due to be aired on the BBC next week. The facts so far, as I can gather them, are this:
A group of students from the LSE including Sweeney’s wife travelled to North Korea earlier this year on an eight day trip under the auspices of academic research. Sweeney travelled with the group too, although as an undercover journalist, filming secret footage which will form the basis of the Panorama program.
The inevitable debate will concern who-knew-what-when but this raises some uncomfortable questions. According to Sweeney the students on the trip were “fully aware of the risks”, although this begs the question of exactly how much they knew about his status and reasons for travelling. Apparently some students believed he was another academic, or post-graduate student, although the idea that they were unaware of exactly who was on staff in their own department seems unusual to say the least.
I’m sure more will come out about this in the next few days as the program is to be aired tomorrow night as “North Korea undercover” at 9pm on BBC 1, and if nothing else Sweeney seems a master at self publicity. He strikes me as a reporter very much in the Andrew Gilligan mould, and whilst his outburst in a previous documentary about Scientology has become the stuff of journalistic legend, this plan seems ill thought out at best, and outright irresponsible at worst. Of course there is a legitimate interest in what is going on in North Korea, although perhaps a documentary solely dedicated to the voices of those who have escaped to the South would suffice. All foreign nationals in North Korea are given teams of minders and shown only an approved picture of the country. Given this it is unclear what is gained by one “secret reporter” embedded in an academic field trip would add to our knowledge of the country. Of course as I write this the program hasn’t yet been screened, so we’ll wait before passing judgement.
The reality though, is that no one will come out of this looking good, given that one or more of the following seems to have been the case:
EIther (as the LSE’s media are claiming) the BBC has sanctioned Sweeney to smuggle himself into a country under academic pretences in search of a story, a story that–no matter how important–comes at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions in the region. If this is the case and neither the students or the LSE knew of Sweeney’s intentions then this is the height of irresponsibility and threatens not only LSE students/academics travelling to sensitive regions in the future, but the reputation of the profession generally. Similarly, if the LSE, through Sweeney’s wife was also aware of the deception, then this shows a disregard for the safety of students involved. They may have signed up for an academic research trip to North Korea but I imagine many may have had serious reservations had they been aware that a journalist would be travelling incognito alongside them.
The most worrying possibility though is that everyone was, so to speak, “in on it” and that the students either wanted or were encouraged to feel a sense of “danger-research/secret agent” fantasies towards the trip. Such an attitude is an even greater threat to academia’s capacity to get into and be trusted in sensitive areas.
Of course, certain institutions international relations departments are notorious for having staff and post-graduates who have…shall we say…”cosy” relationships with both the foreign office and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), and this kind of ill conceived tabloid subterfuge will do little to help dispel suspicions of researchers working in geopolitically sensitive areas of the world.
It will be interesting to see how this story develops.