BBC Refuses to Pull Controversial North Korea Documentary
LONDON – The BBC said it will broadcast a documentary about North Korea after a war of words between the public broadcaster and the London School of Economics (LSE) over the use of students to help get into the communist state.
BBC journalist John Sweeney and other reporters snuck into the country posing as LSE students to gain access for an episode of the broadcaster's flagship current-affairs program, Panorama, which is scheduled for broadcast on BBC One on Monday night.
The London School of Economics hit the headlines complaining the public broadcaster had put its students at risk through its actions.
For its part, the BBC said it had made the students -- traveling to North Korea with the state's official OK -- aware of the dangers, which included possible detention and prison if discovered.
BBC director general Tony Hall has rejected a request from the school's chairman Peter Sutherland to shelve the documentary, North Korea Uncovered.
According to reports in the media and on the BBC, Hall is understood to have said the documentary should air because of a clear public interest in reporting on the escalating situation in North Korea.
Sweeney told BBC News that the students had been fully informed of the risks involved so they could make an informed decision about the potential danger and whether or not they would go.
But the LSE said they had been deliberately misled by the BBC, and challenged the corporation's risk assessments.
Foreign journalists are unable to get visas to enter North Korea but overseas academics and students can.
Sweeney and two other journalists spent eight days in the country in March with the LSE group on a trip ostensibly arranged by the university's international relations department.
The LSE said it first became aware of the true nature of his visit last Tuesday during a meeting with BBC staff. The university said North Korean authorities alleged that Sweeney had described himself on his visa application as an "LSE student, PhD in history" and gave as his address a room number that is used by a member of its academic staff.
BBC News head of programs Ceri Thomas also appeared on air Sunday defending the corporation, describing the documentary as "an important piece of public interest journalism."
BBC's Panorama recently made headlines when Hall’s BBC director general predecessor George Entwistle turned down an interview request by the team investigating the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal.
Entwistle resigned from his post after just 54 days in the job following weeks of negative headlines for the BBC amid the sexual-abuse scandal and the revelation that another BBC show, Newsnight, late last year dropped a planned report about the allegations against Savile.
The show also has been in the headlines after a producer resigned over bribery allegations.
Less than two weeks into the job, it is Hall's second very public decision in executing his duties as the BBC's editor in chief.
He already has had to step into the growing controversy over whether or not the corporation should have played "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead," from The Wizard of Oz, on its BBC chart show Sunday evening.
The song hit No. 2 in the British music charts as the death of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sparked a battle between supporters and protestors over her time in power.
The song du jour for anti-Thatcher protesters played for less than 10 seconds of a news item during the show explaining its entry into the charts.
Never one to be outdone for controversy, retired NBA star and off-court provocateur Dennis Rodman, meanwhile, announced Sunday that he plans to return to North Korea on Aug. 1 to spend some more time with his new pal Kim Jong-un.
"We have no plans really, as far as what we're going to do over there, but we'll just hang and have some fun," Rodman told a reporter from the Miami Herald during a charity gala at the Fontainebleu Hotel in Miami Beach.
In February, Rodman visited North Korea with Vice Media and team members from the Harlem Globetrotters for what was then dubbed an exercise in “basketball diplomacy.” Rodman and the Globetrotters shot hoops with North Korean athletes and were later invited for a reception at the Supreme Leader's residences -- all of which was captured by the Vice crew and will be shown in an upcoming episode of the gonzo hipster media outlet’s new HBO series, VICE, which premiered April 5.
Rodman said at the time that Kim is "like his grandfather and his father, who are great leaders, he is an awesome kid, very honest and loves his wife so much."
The timing and sensational nature of the trip resulted in a barrage of criticism -- and valuable promotional attention -- for Rodman and Vice. Rodman is said to have been questioned by the FBI upon his return about the conversations he had with Kim.
"I'm not a total idiot," Rodman told the Miami Herald on Sunday. "I know what Kim Jong-un is threatening to do regarding his military muscle. I hope it doesn't happen because America will take whatever actions to protect America and our allies. I do think, um, you know, that we have to talk to people who want to cause us harm, so hopefully they won't."
It's not clear yet whether Rodman's next visit to North Korea will be sponsored by Vice or if he's simply going of his own accord.
Patrick Brzeski and Georg Szalai contributed to this report.