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Bad call

The BBC’s undercover operation in North Korea will harm UK researchers in other countries

What is important: public interest journalism or academic integrity?

That is the question that the BBC would like us to believe lies at the heart of the debate over its decision to sanction Panorama’s filming in North Korea, done under the cover of a 10-student ‘study tour’. But the debate is as much about journalistic integrity and the safety of academics as it is about the public interest.

The BBC has made an(other) error and its actions will have consequences for UK students and academics overseas.

The government of North Korea, a secretive and closed nuclear-armed state, is banging the drum about nuclear war. US secretary of state John Kerry has just visited the capitals of friendly Pacific nations in an effort to lower the temperature. But at the same time the US, Japan and South Korea are mobilising their defences, just in case. That, according to BBC news editor Ceri Thomas, is reason enough to justify subjecting North Korea to journalistic scrutiny, even if it means using deception to enter the country.

However, the leadership of the London School of Economics and Political Science, its student union, Universities UK and the presidents of the British Academy and the Royal Society are right to be angry. Though the BBC is entitled to access North Korea using undercover means if the public interest warrants it, to do so without the consent of all the parties is another.

One of those parties is the university. The university has a duty of care to its students and it says no attempt was made to contact the institution before the visit. The BBC says that individual consent of students and parents was obtained. This would have been sufficient if the students were being home-schooled. But as this was not the case, the additional consent of the students’ institution should have been sought, especially if its name was to be used in any way where risks are concerned. Like the BBC, universities also use risk assessment procedures.

That both institutions have ratcheted up their argument is understandable as this is a tense time for them both. The university is acting cautiously when it comes to sensitive countries following negative publicity over revelations of its close ties to the Gaddafi family, which led to the resignation of director Howard Davies.

BBC documentary makers on the other hand will be keen to demonstrate that they have not lost their journalistic edge after failing to broadcast allegations of abuse by Jimmy Savile.

Caught in between are the thousands of students and researchers working in countries where relations with the UK remain tense. It is no secret that government officials in closed states such as Cuba, Iran, Myanmar and Sudan reflexively assume that Western academic researchers are spies or journalists, or are working for their governments.

The BBC’s decision to broadcast its Panorama programme will only serve to authenticate this perception and will make it harder for UK researchers and students to work and study in sensitive countries—even if the broader public is well served by footage from North Korea.