The decision to go ahead with a controversial BBC documentary about North Korea went “right to the top”, the corporation’s head of news programming said today.
Ceri Thomas made the comment as he rejected claims that students had been forced to run unacceptable risks during undercover filming of the investigation.
A BBC crew was embedded in a group from the London School of Economics (LSE) to gather material for the Panorama report, due to be aired this evening.
The university claims key information was withheld from students, who were used “as a human shield” and placed in danger during the eight-day visit to the secretive communist country.
Sir Peter Sutherland, chairman of LSE’s court of governors, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that some of the party had not been fully informed about the plans before leaving.
“I am amazed that the case is being made that in some way these students, misled, going into a most dangerous place – perhaps the most dangerous place on Earth – should be forced to allow a programme to take place that they oppose,” he said.
Three students have since complained and the BBC has agreed to pixelate their images. But Sir Peter suggested that other representatives from the university could now be at risk when travelling abroad.
Mr Thomas denied that briefing of the students had been “shambolic”, insisting they had been repeatedly spoken to individually and as a group.
“We think the risks as we explained them to the students were justified,” he said.
“But I need to be absolutely clear that if we had any suggestion that lives were at risk or anything approaching that – either the BBC team’s lives or the lives of the students – then we wouldn’t have gone anywhere near this.”
Asked how high up the BBC chain authorisation for the programme had gone, Mr Thomas said: “This went right to the top.”
Pressed on whether that meant the then-acting director general Tim Davie had signed off on the plans in advance, Mr Thomas replied: “I can’t be sure that Tim Davie did. I know that Tony Hall (the current director general) has been involved in recent days.”