BBC Tactics in Covering North Korea Are Faulted


By 
Published: April 14, 2013, NYT
BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the ...

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the head of Regent Street, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As tensions escalated between North Korea and the world late last month, a small group of students from the prestigious London School of Economics crossed the border into the reclusive country for what was described by organizers as a government-sanctioned “week of sight seeing, meeting with ministers, government officials” and academics.

 But among the students, the university announced in an outraged statement over the weekend, were three BBC journalists filming an undercover documentary. The BBC, the university said, “deliberately misled” the group to underplay the scope of the reporting, placed the students in danger and jeopardized its work in politically fraught nations. It demanded that the BBC pull the film, set for broadcast on Monday, and issue an apology.

The BBC declined, saying that the documentary on a country so few people understand was in the public interest. And in a statement released Sunday, the BBC disputed the university’s account. It said the students had been told that a journalist would be present “and were reminded of it again, in time to have been able to change their plans if they wanted to.”

But the BBC, which the university says actually sent three journalists, also later acknowledged that it had not told the students of the nature of the documentary, in what it characterized as a bid to keep them safe if the journalists were found out and the students were questioned about what they knew.

Although at least some tourists are now allowed into the police state, reporters need government permission to work there and are assigned minders. In 2009 two American journalists, Laura Ling, then 32, and Euna Lee, then 36, were arrested and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor after being accused of illegally entering North Korean territory while researching a report on women and human trafficking. They were spared the prospect of years in a brutal gulag when former President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang and negotiated their release four months later.

Alex Peters-Day, the lead student representative for the university, said Sunday that students had received e-mails from the North Korean government on their return saying that it had learned that reporters were with the group and was very angry. Ms. Peters-Day disputed the BBC version of events, saying the students had not been given enough information to give informed consent.

Craig Calhoun, the university’s director, said in a post on Twitter that the trip “was not an official LSE trip.” He said the BBC had essentially recruited some students in a university-affiliated student international relations group, the Grimshaw Club, and had “passed it off” as a student trip.

Ms. Peters-Day said that students had received an e-mail suggesting the trip from one of the BBC journalists, Tomiko Sweeney, who is married to the lead reporter on the documentary, John Sweeney, and is a former LSE student. Mr. Sweeney did not respond to a message left on his cellphone, but said, in a BBC radio interview and on Twitter that he disputed the school’s allegations. There was no answer at a London number listed for the couple.

Ceri Thomas, the BBC’s head of news, said Sunday that though the trip had been organized by Mr. Sweeney’s wife, it “was going to happen before the BBC got involved.” The students were warned of the dangers in two meetings in London and again in Beijing, he said. “The only people we deceived,” he said of the documentary, “was the North Korean government. And if the students were in on that deception they were in a worse position.”

The public interest argument for the documentary was “overwhelming,” Mr. Thomas said. North Korea is “a country that is hidden from view, where we suspect that brutal things are happening, one of the most oppressive regimes on the planet which is threatening nuclear war in the Korean Peninsula.”

The standoff marks the second time this year that the world’s delicate diplomatic dance with North Korea over its escalating nuclear threats has been disturbed by a television crew. In late February, the magazine Vice sent the former Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang to meet the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, an avid basketball fan, for a documentary series it is producing in collaboration with HBO.

That heavily covered visit, after the country’s latest nuclear test in defiance of world powers, allowed the young Mr. Kim to present himself — at least to his people — as someone who is respected outside his country.
The BBC’s Mr. Sweeney is a veteran television reporter famed for his tangles with the Church of Scientology. The North Korean guides, the university said, called him “professor.”

The documentary, titled “North Korea Undercover” and part of the BBC’s flagship Panorama series, shows a “landscape bleak beyond words, a people brainwashed for three generations and a regime happy to give the impression of marching towards Armageddon,” according to the BBC’s Web site. Unlike Mr. Rodman, Mr. Sweeney appears not to have gained access to the North Korean inner circle.

Stephen J. A. Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, expressed surprise that the BBC had chosen to report the story as it did, though he acknowledged that undercover journalism is a widely accepted practice in Britain. “You have to be able to say ‘there is no other way we can get this story,’ and that you’re not putting other people in danger,” he said.

The Associated Press has had a bureau in Pyongyang since 2012.

Universities UK, a body that represents British universities, criticized the BBC on Sunday.

“The way that this BBC investigation was conducted might not only have put students’ safety at risk,” Nicola Dandridge, the group’s chief executive, told reporters, “but may also have damaged our universities’ reputations overseas.”

Late last year, the BBC’s ethical standards were questioned when it emerged that one of its presenters, Jimmy Savile, had faced accusations of sexual abuse spanning his long career. The BBC had declined to broadcast a news investigation into the accusations, but did broadcast two glowing tributes to Mr. Savile after his death in 2011.

The London School of Economics became embroiled in difficulties of its own with an oppressive regime when it emerged in 2011 that it had close links with the government of Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, including accepting training contracts worth millions and a donation from the dictator’s son Seif al-Islam Qaddafi. It eventually diverted the money to a scholarship fund for North African students.

Don’t Be Afraid, Mr. President — You Can Take on the Gun Lobby


  NEWS & POLITICS
Salon / By Steve Kornacki, Altnet
Barack Obama and his party have been too terrified of angering gun owners to realize they can win without them.
December 15, 2012  |

A grieving President Barack Obama wiped away tears and struggled to compose himself Friday as he mourned the dead in the Connecticut school shooting.
Photo Credit: AFP

There’s no disputing that the Democratic Party has regressed dramatically on the issue of gun violence over the past two decades. When a shooting rampage on the Long Island Railroad killed six people and injured 19 others in December 1993, Bill Clinton responded immediately by calling for specific legislative action to prevent future tragedies. Contrast that with the response of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Friday to a question about whether the carnage in Connecticut might prompt President Obama to pursue gun control measures. “I’m sure there will be another day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates,” Carney said, “but I don’t think today is that day.”

It can be hard to remember now, but well into the 1990s, national Democrats proudly associated themselves with gun control, championing laws that restricted access to deadly weapons. Under Clinton, the Brady Bill, which mandated a five-day waiting period for the purchase of handgun, was passed, and so was a ban on assault weapons. The 1996 Democratic Convention that nominated Clinton for a second term featured Jim and Sarah Brady as primetime speakers.

The years since then, however, have been marked by a steady and thus far enduring Democratic retreat on the issue, with the Second Amendment crowd now largely dictating the terms of public discussion and Democrats mainly trying to avoid their wrath. Consider Obama’s record on guns, which includes one achievement: a law making it easier to carry concealed weapons in national parks.

While the violent crime rate that fed the gun control zeal of the ’90s is much lower today, horrifying mass shootings seem to be on the rise. Six of the 12 deadliest sprees in American history have taken place just since 2007. In his own remarks Friday, delivered a few hours after Carney’s, Obama seemed to hint that the latest deadly outburst might actually shake him and his party from their defensive crouch on guns. “[W]e’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of politics,” the president said.

What that means is anyone’s guess right now. It appears that the Connecticut killer used several weapons, at least one of which would be illegal if the assault weapons ban – which the Republican Congress refused to reauthorize in 2004 – were still in effect. Obama is on the record supporting the ban’s reinstatement; might he now demand action? Or will he pursue other policy changes? Or maybe he’ll just end up doing what leaders of his party have done for more than a decade now: nothing.

The Democrats’ cowardice on guns traces back to the fateful election of 2000. Clinton, despite his aggressive pursuit of gun control measures, fared relatively well with rural gun-owning populations in his 1996 reelection campaign. But those same voters turned hard on Al Gore in ’00, shifting Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee to the Republican column. A victory in any one of those states – all of which Clinton carried twice – would have made Gore president. Democrats concluded that they’d scared off rural, lower-income white voters who had traditionally supported them – and that guns were the big reason why. A new consensus emerged: Gun control could no longer be a central component of Democratic messaging. So it was that John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008 and 2012 did their best to ignore the issue. Kerry went so far as to embark on a goose hunt in rural Ohio just before Election Day.

In terms of political strategy, there’s been one obvious shortcoming to this approach: It hasn’t worked. Kerry did no better than Gore in West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas, and Obama has failed to win any of those states in two elections now. What’s more, there’s been no improvement in Democratic support among gun owners in any election since 2000. As Nate Cohn pointed out Friday, the lesson Democrats should be drawing from Obama’s two victories is that they can win nationally without the pro-gun vote. The Democratic coalition continues to evolve and grow, and the rural white voters who were key to its success generations ago have become a reliably Republican constituency.

What’s more, Democrats continue to be painted as the party of gun confiscators by the NRA and its allies. Even though there was nothing in Obama’s first term record for them to object to, the NRA bitterly fought his reelection this year, treating him as if he were Michael Douglas’ character in “The American President.” In other words, Democrats are already paying the political price that comes with being the gun control party. So if they believe in it, why not just say it – and act on it?

The answer typically provided to this question is that there are a number of Democrats in Congress from states with large gun-owning populations – think Joe Manchin and Jon Tester – and that the party’s current posture makes it possible for them to win. But a better way of understanding the success of these Democrats is that it’s come in spite of the national party’s reputation. Democrats like Manchin and Tester are already winning over voters who believe national Democrats want to take their guns away; this challenge will be exactly the same if national Democrats actually do start pursuing gun control again.

There were a few notable Democratc voices on Friday demanding that the party recommit itself to tackling gun violence. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a Long Island Democrat who entered politics in response to her husband’s death in the ’93 LIRR tragedy, said Friday that she will be pushing “full force” for new gun laws in Obama’s second term – and that she’s willing to “embarrass” the president if necessary.

McCarthy, it should be noted, was showcased by her national party when she first ran for Congress in 1996. Her story of turning her loss into a crusade for gun control was one with which Democrats very much wanted to be associated. As her congressional career progressed, McCarthy became lonely voice, on Capitol Hill and within the Democratic Party. But the spike in mass shootings has given her a new audience and an opportunity win new allies (and to win back old ones) – and to exert real pressure on Obama to get serious. We’ll know soon enough if Obama is really feeling the heat.

 

 

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