So it’s okay for the Beeb to be ‘unethical’?

If a tabloid used students as a human shield to get a story, there’d be outrage. But by saying ‘public interest!’ the BBC can get away with it.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Culture

Unethical? Protocol dodging? It certainly looks as if the BBC is guilty of both.

The story is this: back in March, the BBC’s flagship investigative journalism show, Panorama, used 10 London School of Economics students as a pretext for smuggling three journalists, posing as academics, into North Korea.

North Korea, a long-time international pariah, is none too keen on Western journalists filming inside its borders – it refuses them visas. So, to get round this, the BBC’s John Sweeney, his wife, Tomiko Sweeney, and Alexander Niakaris joined up with the Grimshaw Club – the student society of the LSE’s international relations department – and gained access to North Korea pretending to be the students’ lecturers. They stayed for eight days, and produced footage of ‘life inside North Korea’. If they had been caught, the Sweeneys, Niakaris and the 10 students would have faced deportation. At best.

The problem, however, was that those the Panorama team inveigled into their scheme, from the students to the LSE itself, did not seem to be aware of what was going on. The LSE was not told what was being done in its name, and there are conflicting reports over the extent to which the students, aged between 18 and 28, were made aware of what was happening and the risks it entailed. The LSE has now called for the programme to be pulled, and Alex Peters-Day, the general secretary of the LSE Students’ Union, also refused to pull any punches: ‘It was not the BBC’s place to make decisions on behalf of the students on the trip, nor was it the BBC’s place to put at risk all those within the school.’ ‘For us’, she said later, ‘this is a matter of student welfare – students were lied to, they weren’t able to give their consent… [The BBC] used students essentially as a human shield…’

The BBC and Sweeney himself reject the claims. But their caveats and qualifications don’t sound particularly convincing, with Sweeney claiming weakly that ‘the majority’ of the students support the programme. Does that mean that several don’t, that several were deceived into putting their lives at risk? Either way, the blasé way in which Sweeney and his team treated the students, as a mere means to their journalistic end, is gobsmacking, both for the absence of ethics, and the disregard for basic protocol. Where, for example, are the students’ signed consent forms? You’d think the BBC might at least want to cover its back?

Yet despite this, despite the criticism of the LSE’s Sir Peter Sutherland that the BBC ‘used a number of students as human cover for a filming operation without fully informing all of them what was happening’, the broadcaster remains convinced that it has done nothing that cannot be justified. How is this possible? Because, as far as the BBC is concerned, there is a ‘public interest’ in broadcasting a programme ‘exposing some aspects of life inside [North Korea]’, regardless of the means with which the footage was obtained.

Those weasel words, ‘in the public interest’ – the last refuge of the censor – are the key to understanding the BBC’s implacable sense of rectitude. They allow it to distinguish its own brand of supposedly respectable journalism from that pursued by the looked-down-upon tabloids, manned by unscrupulous, venal hacks. While the red-tops, at least in the pre-Leveson era, pursued stories which the public chose to read in their millions, the BBC pursues stories it believes the public should see in their thousands. And in the name of what a select few judge to be ‘in the public interest’, any old rubbish, no matter how unethical, can be justified. Panorama could broadcast a 30-minute fart, and BBC execs would claim it was in the public interest.

This amounts to rank hypocrisy. If a tabloid uses underhand, unethical methods to get at a story, there is outrage from the respectable media (not to mention huge police investigations); if the BBC uses underhand, unethical methods to get at a story, there is self-righteous intoning about it being for our own good.

And is this Panorama programme really going to enrich the national conversation? It seems unlikely, given its providence. For example, this edition’s journalistic lead, John Sweeney, is most famous for investigating the pantomime evil that is the Church of Scientology, an organisation he ‘exposed’ as being as daft as everyone already thought it was. In many ways, it is not too a great a leap from the Church of Scientology to North Korea. The one is an insignificant would-be religious body every right-thinking liberal mocks and demonises, the other is an insignificant would-be state every right-thinking liberal mocks and demonises. They are both such obvious and easy targets.

Of course, Panorama could surprise us with an even-handed look at the reality of North Korea. You know, the type of thing produced by an academic study of the region, one carried out, perhaps, by the LSE. This, though, is exactly what Panorama does not do, as last year’s disgraceful ‘Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate’ amply illustrated. All too often, Panorama prefers fearmongering and hyperbole to the facts of the matter. And given Sweeney’s latest comments, he himself is clearly not averse to a touch of insight-defying melodrama: ‘[North Korea] is more like Hitler’s Germany than any other state in this world right now’, he said, channelling Team America: World Police. ‘It’s extraordinarily scary, dark and evil’, he concluded.

In the current context, in which too many Western policymakers are busy invoking the spirit of former US president George W Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech, this Panorama programme looks set to add to the hyperbole about North Korea not cut through it. At a time when a bit more light and a lot less heat is required, the BBC has turned up with the journalistic equivalent of a blow torch.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Culture


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