BBC and LSE – Reputation Battle

It’s clear how this London School of Economics/BBC argument will end. In the eyes of students, academics and the public (but not dictators) the reputations of both institutions will benefit – in the long run, and as long as the right decisions are made by the heads of both institutions.

They have fallen out after a Panorama journalist secretly filmed during a LSE student visit to North Korea.

North Koreans

North Koreans

Journalist Paul Sweeney posed as “Dr John Paul Sweeney, LSE Student, PhD History”. I understand that he was referred to throughout the visit as “the professor”.

The LSE has demanded the BBC withdraw the planned episode and issue a full apology for the actions of BBC staff in using the School and its good reputation as a means of deception”.

What implications does this row have for the reputations of these two venerable institutions?

Firstly, LSE.

The LSE unhappiness is to do with (a) its ability to conduct similar trips in future and (b) Sweeney gained access by deception.

Other academics have waded in:

“The UK’s academics have a global reputation and it is vitally important that they can be trusted and seen to be working in an open and transparent manner. The way that this BBC investigation was conducted might not only have put students’ safety at risk, but may also have damaged our universities’ reputations overseas” said Nicola Dandridge, chief executive officer of UUK, the body representing university sector in the UK.

Reputations are complex, and have many dimensions to them. One group may have very different perceptions than another, for quite legitimate reasons.

Dandridge’s point here is actually about universities’ reputation overseas amongst despotic regimes and dictators. Not about its reputation amongst students, academics and the public.

Lets take as a starting point the purpose of the University. In the LSE’s own words it exists to teach, research and “to improve society and to “understand the causes of things”.

How does this episode impact on that?

Clearly they runs interesting trips, and if they can access such relevant places as North Korea as part of their study programmes, student applications are not going to suffer

What about the LSE’s apparent lack of internal controls? Who was in charge? Why weren’t the three imposters spotted? (Presumably lugging around bits of camera equipment.) This does reinforce a perception of scatty academics who lack basic management and organisational skills.

The LSE’s pursuit of access to foreign dictators has caused it problems in the past. In 2011 the university’s director resigned after it was alleged that it was involved in a multi-million pound deal to train future members of the country’s elite, and was suspected of facilitating Saif Gaddaffi’s studies there.

Given its recent form some may see the LSE’s slightly hysterical demands as high handed, and even hypocritical. And the call by one of the student representatives that the BBC reporter “is as unwelcomed to be associated with the LSE as Saif al-Islam Gaddafi” is rather silly.

Now to the BBC.

The BBC’s reputation has taken a battering in recent months. A poll by YouGov in December found that only 31 per cent of respondents rated the BBC’s reputation as “high”, down from an approval rating of about 80 per cent that it had enjoyed for years.

In the words of one overseas newspaper the broadcaster has been “condemned worldwide for a sexual abuse scandal involving a predator presenter.”

But this episode does show BBC’s commitment to fearless journalism. Its stated mission is to enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain“. And in this case bringing news to the world of truly terrible suffering in this benighted country.

The BBC’s robust defence has centred on the public interest of getting the story.

BBC News head of programmes Ceri Thomas said yesterday: “This is an important piece of public interest journalism.” Asked whether that justified putting student lives at risk, he replied: “We think it does.”

So there we are. Fearless journalism, acting in the public interest, and a university running relevant courses, taking students to far flung and interesting places.

We’ll be tuning in to Panorama tonight. Expectations are running high.







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