The BBC’s unrepentant use of a London School of Economics (LSE) student trip as cover for a Panorama documentary ‘North Korea Undercover’ sets a precedent that both researchers and media professionals should worry about, not just British academics. The trip to North Korea was undertaken in March this year by members of a student body interested in international politics, the Grimshaw Club. The students were told beforehand that they would be accompanied by a journalist, but assumed it was a print journalist. It was only in Beijing where they were joined by two others, that they realised they were being accompanied by a BBC camera crew.
An email that the LSE has put out on the incident flags two concerns. The first relates to the BBC’s unilateral release of information on a need to know basis, which took away the students’ power to make an informed decision and yet put them at risk for whatever little they did know had they been caught. The second relates to actual subterfuge and not just a failure to inform the students they were being used as human shields: John Sweeney “described his occupation for entry control purposes as ‘LSE student, PhD in History’ and gave his address as that of LSE’s — including a specific office room number which is actually used by a genuine member of LSE staff”.
While some of the students on the trip have asked to have their photos removed or pixellated, for fear of personal threats, the harm done goes much beyond the fate of these individual students, to the larger interests of truth and unbiased access to knowledge. The BBC has defended the decision to air the documentary despite the LSE’s protests, on the grounds of free speech and the importance of the subject. As The Independent reported: “BBC News head of programmes Ceri Thomas said: ‘This is an important piece of public interest journalism.’ Asked whether that justified putting student lives at risk, he replied: ‘We think it does.’”
Unfortunately, the BBC is not the only one to think this is acceptable justification. Closer home, Tehelka reporters frequently use the garb of researchers to carry out investigations. For instance, in a story published on November 3, 2007, Tehelka tells us that they interviewed ASM Meena on the Godhra train burning with Tehelka’s “undercover reporter… posing as a research scholar”. Five years later (April 14, 2012), they were still at it, this time for a story on police attitudes to rape: “In a two-week long investigation, Tehelka undercover reporters posing as research scholars, visited 23 stations across the NCR.” While the stories they did may be laudable, in future genuine researchers might face problems from people suspecting they are undercover reporters.
While no one would deny that many journalists have done serious public service by their investigative exposés at grave personal risk, it is equally important to recognise the importance of academic research for its own sake. This may not produce the instant results that a news story does, but the knowledge it yields is often deeper and more lasting. One argument that has been made is that North Korea is so evil that there is no point engaging with it academically (Tim Stanley in The Telegraph), but then who is to decide? Unless academics study both perpetrators and victims, ‘Nazi states’ and more liberal ones; how do they uncover what is really the truth and what is mere propaganda? While there are good cases for academic boycott — such as apartheid South Africa or Zionist Israel — we are able to come to this conclusion precisely because of academic research. This reasoning also comes perilously close to bureaucratic justifications for denying research. At a meeting to screen research proposals on alternative justice systems, an official from the law ministry said there was no need to study the dispute resolution mechanisms of the Chambal valley dacoits or the Maoists, for that, in his opinion, would be to legitimise them. Do engineers studying road accidents thereby cause or support accidents?
Like journalists, many academics — especially social scientists who do empirical work — also work in dangerous situations where the only thing they have is their credibility as independent researchers. Journalists, by comparison, are a favoured lot — they have press cards, a guild to back them, and a general understanding that they can go anywhere and cover anything. In conflict situations, both insurgents and the administration will allow journalists in, whereas they are much more cagey about giving researchers access. The Indian government too seems to think that academics are a more dangerous lot than journalists as shown by the difficulties that scholars have in getting visas to attend conferences, leave alone to do research. Given these starting handicaps, it is all the more troubling when journalists abuse their position and pretend to be researchers, thus constraining whatever little space there is for research.
Of course, social scientists are scarcely innocent of wrong doing, though much of the harm has come to light only because of the efforts of conscientious anthropologists themselves. For instance, David Price’s book, Anthropological Intelligence (Duke 2008) describes how American anthropologists gathered military intelligence and assisted the American war effort during WW II; while the 1960s Project Camelot, where social scientists were mobilised by the US army to gather information on revolutionary movements in Latin America, has become a byword on what to avoid. Universities in the US have institutionalised review boards where researchers have to show how they are observing ethical guidelines.
Some argue that academic or journalistic objectivity is equally compromised by human rights activism. For researchers there is no easy choice in deciding when to speak out as a citizen and when to silently document for posterity. Both are valuable and both carry costs — in the first case, one’s research access is compromised; in the second, one’s desire to make the horror instantly known. Scholars have resolved this dilemma in different ways — some like NK Bose or EP Thompson by doing only one thing at one time; and others, by doing both, but keeping these apart as two perspectives. But one thing the researcher or the journalist should not do is to pretend to be something other than she is; and certainly not do anything that might endanger the standing of the professional discipline she belongs to.
Nandini Sundar teaches sociology at Delhi University
The views expressed by the author are personal