BBC Apologizes for North Korea Documentary

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BBC director general Tony Hall

The U.K. public broadcaster's governing body found the team at current affairs show "Panorama" breached key editorial guidelines.

LONDON -- The BBC on Monday apologized for a documentary about North Korea that had last year caused a war of words between the U.K. public broadcaster and the London School of Economics (LSE) over using 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 a report on a probe by the BBC governing body on Monday said had breached key editorial guidelines.

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The LSE argued that the 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 in one of his early decisions after taking over the British public broadcaster rejected a request from the school's chairman Peter Sutherland to shelve the documentary, North Korea Uncovered.

Hall argued that the documentary should air because of a clear public interest in reporting on the escalating situation in North Korea.

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 mostly arranged by the university's international relations department.

The LSE said it first became aware of the true nature of the visit later.

The BBC Trust, the governing body of the broadcaster, asked its editorial standards committee to review what happened. In a 42-page report published Monday, it said that the BBC had failed to prepare the students properly for the risks involved.

While there was "strong public interest" in the documentary, which aired last April and drew an audience of 5.1 million viewers, the Trust's report also concluded that information provided to the 10 students before the trip was "insufficient and inadequate."

"Discovering stories in difficult or dangerous places is one of the BBC's greatest strengths," said Alison Hastings, chair of the BBC Trust's editorial standards committee. "There was a real public interest in making this program in North Korea, but, in the Trust's view, the BBC failed to ensure that all the young adults Panorama traveled with were sufficiently aware of any potential risks to enable them to give informed consent. This was a serious failing, and the BBC is right to apologize to the complainants."

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