International Debate

The BBC, North Korea and the Culture of Impunity

April 16, 2013 1268

The controversy over BBC journalists’ use of a student tour group linked to the London School of Economics to provide cover for their infiltration and secret filming in North Korea has been displaced in the news by the terrible events in Boston on Sunday. The BBC has also been trying very hard to shut down the argument, which received scant coverage on Monday’s night’s news broadcasts in contrast to puffing the footage that had been obtained. However, this issue should not be allowed to wither away so quietly.

Craig Calhoun, the LSE’s Director, rightly got onto this case very quickly, possibly reflecting his US background. There is a long history of debate and contention in the US about the abuse of social science as a cover for other activities. This has particularly focussed on the ways in which US intelligence agencies have either sought to co-opt anthropologists or political scientists, or to pass its operatives off as members of those disciplines, in order to pursue counter-insurgency goals. The most notorious example was Project Camelot in the 1960s, but this history goes back to the 1940s and has recently been revived in relation to the Human Terrain Systems programmes in Iraq and Afghanistan. As has been recognized, the result is to create suspicion around genuine scholarly work and to place the lives of innocent social scientists at risk.

In the UK, the history is rather different, partly because of the state’s suspicion of social sciences. The recent obituaries for Peter Worsley, for example, noted that he only came to do his great study of cargo cults in Melanesia because UK security agencies blocked him, as a Communist, from doing fieldwork in Africa. Where anthropologists were co-opted for military purposes, as with Tom Harrisson in Borneo during World War II and the later insurgency, it was as acknowledged personnel with an explicit rank and mission. Harrisson certainly drew on his experience as an anthropologist, for example, in reviving Dayak head-hunting so long as the only heads hunted were Japanese soldiers. However, there was no question of pretending that he was still working as an anthropologist rather than as a commissioned officer in the British Army. The lack of attention to these issues was well-illustrated by ESRC’s embarrassment over accepting UK Foreign Office funding in 2006 for a virtual replication of Project Camelot, looking at the roots of Islamic hostility to western societies. It emerged that no-one involved on the research council side had been aware of this unfortunate precedent. The Council’s self-appointment as ethical regulator for UK social science did not, apparently, extend to its own research programmes.

Calhoun’s challenge to the BBC was, then, well-founded and has drawn impressive support from the UK academic establishment. Scholarly activity is likely to be damaged by this sort of behaviour. The BBC’s response was notably weak and rested on two claims: that the filming gave valuable new insights into everyday life in North Korea and that the only people who were deceived were the North Korean government who somehow deserved to be deceived because of their hostility to western journalists. The first of these claims is disingenuous: having watched the programme, there was really nothing that had not previously been shown by others covertly filming as part of other tours or which had not been reported by people who had taken part in such tours. A fairly cursory search on Google and YouTube shows that filming of this kind is a regular occurrence, particularly by the US networks. BBC pride may have been pricked by the need to rely on other people’s coverage but the added news or documentary value of this filming is highly questionable.

More important, however, is the claim that the only deception practiced was on the North Korean government. This, of course, is simply not true. The deception was practiced on immigration officials, tour guides, hotel staff and other low-level workers. These people are particularly vulnerable. Under a regime like that in North Korea, security is everybody’s business – and a failure to recognize a breach is a serious matter. Work discipline does not mean a sticky session with someone from HR. It is the risk of losing a decent job in a situation where such jobs are rare, of imprisonment where prison conditions are notoriously harsh or, indeed, of execution for collaboration. The students may have been offered some kind of opportunity to consent to the abuse of their tour but this opportunity does not seem to have been made available to the ordinary North Koreans who were implicated. Did the novelty value of the film justify the risks that were imposed on them?

Readers of my work on research ethics will know that I am strongly critical of those who claim that covert research is never justified. If it is to be undertaken, however, the risks must be fully thought through – and they do not seem to have been in this case. The BBC may have given some thought to the implications for British social science – although it is not clear that they gave these much weight. However, there is no current evidence that they gave any thought to the fate of the hapless North Koreans who were likely to suffer at the hands of their government as a result of this adventure. BBC journalists have had much fun at the expense of the News of the World’s dealings with ‘little people’, which led to the closure of that newspaper and the Leveson inquiry. In this case, it is not clear that they have actually behaved any better. Maybe the ‘culture of impunity’ that led phone hackers to think they could evade the criminal law also pervades the staff of Panorama and their equally partial approach to journalistic ethics?

READ RELATED ARTICLES

A Regulated Free Press – Compromise or Contradiction?

Polar Bears and the Ethics of Representation

How far should we go?

International affairs and the public sphere

Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

View all posts by Robert Dingwall

Related Articles

Why Don’t Algorithms Agree With Each Other?
Innovation
February 21, 2024

Why Don’t Algorithms Agree With Each Other?

Read Now
Contemporary Politics Focus of March Webinar Series
News
February 21, 2024

Contemporary Politics Focus of March Webinar Series

Read Now
A Black History Addendum to the American Music Industry
Insights
February 6, 2024

A Black History Addendum to the American Music Industry

Read Now
SSRC Links with U.S. Treasury on Evaluation Projects
Announcements
February 1, 2024

SSRC Links with U.S. Treasury on Evaluation Projects

Read Now
The Use of Bad Data Reveals a Need for Retraction in Governmental Data Bases

The Use of Bad Data Reveals a Need for Retraction in Governmental Data Bases

Retractions are generally framed as a negative: as science not working properly, as an embarrassment for the institutions involved, or as a flaw in the peer review process. They can be all those things. But they can also be part of a story of science working the right way: finding and correcting errors, and publicly acknowledging when information turns out to be incorrect.

Read Now
Connecting Legislators and Researchers, Leads to Policies Based on Scientific Evidence

Connecting Legislators and Researchers, Leads to Policies Based on Scientific Evidence

The author’s team is developing ways to connect policymakers with university-based researchers – and studying what happens when these academics become the trusted sources, rather than those with special interests who stand to gain financially from various initiatives.

Read Now
NSF Responsible Tech Initiative Looking at AI, Biotech and Climate

NSF Responsible Tech Initiative Looking at AI, Biotech and Climate

The U.S. National Science Foundation’s new Responsible Design, Development, and Deployment of Technologies (ReDDDoT) program supports research, implementation, and educational projects for multidisciplinary, multi-sector teams

Read Now
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

2 Comments
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments