A few days ago I said that by providing cover for a journalist, LSE students put academics working in danger zone at risk. Universities UK had issued a Press Release on similar line. I am glad I am not the only one who noticed this as an big issue. [Declaration of Interest: Universities UK provided a large part of my tuition fees for my PhD studies back in the late 90s to early 2000]
I also noted that the LSE students involved claimed that by going public, LSE put them at more risk. I disagree with them. Their affiliations will be public knowledge once BBC broadcasted the Panorama programme. There is no way to hide it even if the BBC footage avoid showing them at all. With a bit of research, People will put two and two together. That is assuming that nobody choose to ‘leak’ the information. As LSE’s reply to them clearly indicated, at least one party already threaten to release their affiliation details. Smarter ones among them would had realized that there is no way to hide their affiliations once they see John Sweeney and know that it is a Panorama programme.
As for their claim that there is informed consent, I do not think they are best-placed to judge it for themselves. It is a complex issues and they are stakeholders in it. Only an disinterested bystander familiar with the issues of informed consent and the situation can make a judgement. For example, if it is very important for them to be on the trip (and I have to stress that it is not the case here), then one can easily make the case that they cannot give informed consent. Period. It does not matter whether the decision to allow Panorama to come along rest on majority or unanimous decision because one have to assume they are under undue pressure, whether they realized it or not.
My cursory examination of the issue says that if Mr Sweeney’s identity and the Programme name where made available to them in the UK before they left then we have informed consent. They are adults and I do not think there is undue pressure on them. Mr Sweeney and Panorama is in a different league than say, a correspondent from another BBC programme. In this case I would argue the identity of the reporter and programme is an important parcel of the informed consent process. Thus, knowing the identity of the journalist and program only when they are in China means the students have too much committed to be able to give informed consent.
I also cannot believe the how naive the students are when they wrote in their letter that “nothing happened… which would indicate that we were put in danger”. They were lucky. There won’t be anything hint that indicate you are in danger. Even if there was, there will be no escape route. It would take the British Embassy there days if not months to work out where you are let alone getting you out of the country.
The sad thing is, and there is no way the student would know before hand, except for video footage that looks like someone went for a tour in a third world country, nothing in the Panorama programs that indicate it is worth the risk. People says it contain nothing that a tour trip to North Korea would not show, and I tend to agree. All it did is to provide enough video footage to make up a TV program. There is nothing much in there that North Korea do not want tourist to see. As for BBC claims of public interest? After watching the program, I think the only justification for it being “in the public interest” is because since North Korea is in the news, anything BBC shows about North Korea would automatically qualify as Public Interest. In m opinion, it is there is the content of the program that make the public interest claim. It reveals nothing here that makes the risk of the trip worthwhile.