The moral minefield of reporting on North Korea

Do we really need another prime-time expose of the horrors of life in North Korea? The BBC seems to think we do, and the undercover Panorama programme they have scheduled for tomorrow is certainly topical, but responsible and courageous campaigning groups have been putting most of it out for some considerable time. They haven’t atttracted the publicity of John Sweeney’s boys-own-paper stunt, but hopefully nor have they put innocent people at risk without their fully informed consent.

I have some real concerns about Sweeney’s less than open response to the LSE‘s legitimate concerns that he has severely compromised the students he accompanied on a tour of North Korea, one of whom was only 18. Some of these young people have the potential to make a significant, long-lasting effect on some of the world’s most troubled regimes. Now their future ability to do this will be compromised by their unintended association with Sweeney’s broadcasting coup. He will get the publicity, they and other academics already quietly active in such places will find it that bit more difficult and dangerous to operate than they already do. It’s disingenouous for the BBC to argue that all the students in the party were informed of the potential risks of a journalist being present. When was this done? Were they given the right to veto his involvement? Journalist can mean many different things – how aware were they of the precise nature of his intended exposee?

It’s possible that in their idealism the LSE students completely endorsed Sweeney’s presence among them and what he planned to do. But in such a dangerous and volatile place, decisions on their safety and the possible long-term consequences of their association with the project would have been better made by LSE staff, who were less likely to be swayed by short-term bravado. If my daughter or son had been in that group, I would be livid. And the LSE is quite right to call for the Panormama programme not to be transmitted.

In saying this, I am in no way condoning Kim-Jong Un and his vile regime. But those who really want to know more of its horrors already have the means to find out. They could do a lot worse than to start with Barbara Demick’s fine and harrowing book, Nothing to Envy: The Real Lives of People in North Korea.

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