Tuesday, 16 April 2013

You got it wrong, BBC

Unlike some, I am a great fan of the BBC. I naturally think nice things about them. I think they do great work and are a national treasure. Some of my favourite programmes are from the BBC, and I don't resent paying the licence fee. But they got it horribly wrong over the recent North Korea documentary scandal.

In case you haven't heard/are looking at this through the mists of time when the incident is long forgotten, the BBC sent an undercover team along with a student visit to North Korea arranged by the LSE. The university and many academic bodies are protesting that the broadcaster put the students at risk, and undermined the ability of academics to be considered neutral, safe people to have working in dangerous areas.

Two things strike me about this. One is a very small one, but curious. I have heard at least ten reports on this on the BBC news, and not one of them has mentioned a very pertinent fact that was in the Independent on Sunday. It seems that one of the LSE academics leading the trip was the wife of the BBC reporter John Sweeney at the heart of the furore, and he was travelling as her husband. This doesn't have any bearing on whether or not the BBC was right or wrong to do this, but it seems very strange that it has not been mentioned.

The main one, though, is why I think the BBC did get it wrong. My knee-jerk reaction was to side with the BBC against the LSE, an organization that usually gets my back up, especially when its spokesperson sounded like an archetypal plummy over-priveleged whining academic. After all, the BBC needs to be able to do investigative journalism, and this was a rare opportunity to get into this secretive country. But when I actually thought about it from the viewpoint of the students, I realized just how wrong this whole thing was.

The BBC's defence was that the students were all adults (18 or over), they had been warned there would be a journalist with them, and about the accompanying risk in advance, and they had been told there were actually three journalists with them when the were in Beijing on the way to North Korea. What they have not said, though, is what choice the students were given.

Thinking back to my 'adult' student days, it would not have been an easy position. Okay, we didn't have physics field trips, but I assume from the students' viewpoint, this trip was a contributory part of their course. If they said they wouldn't go, presumably it could have a negative influence on their degree, or whatever they were studying for. Seen in that light it was totally wrong to say that the students were given a clear choice, if, as I suspect, the choice given to them was either go or don't go. The only honourable choice the BBC could have offered them was 'If anyone is uncomfortable with this, the BBC will not go with you, the trip will simply go ahead as originally planned.' To expect students to weigh up the risk of having BBC personnel along against the risk of damaging their qualifications was too high a price to pay.

As soon as you look at this from the students' viewpoint, it is clear that the BBC got it wrong.

Image from Wikipedia

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