Like a lot of the British middle-class I am virtually perpetually listening to BBC Radio 4, It is a clock that regulates the days, and a kind of mental sustenance that can be brought even up to the peaks of a long hike over the Pennines of northern England. My interest was well and truly piqued therefore on Monday 8th of April when the important ‘PM’ news programme featured an interview with journalist John Sweeney about his recent exploits in the DPRK.
Sweeney is famous in the UK for having completely freaked out during his investigation of the Church of Scientology for the BBC’s Panorama (captured hopefully forever on YouTube). After Sweeney’s apoplectic outburst BBC-ophiles thought his hysterical approach to journalism was gone for good. But, as the events of recent weeks in Korea have attracted a certain type of mania, somehow he resurfaced. While Sweeney was far from the ideal candidate to offer reportage north of the DMZ any crumbs commissioned by the BBC on the issue—an issue which is generally lost in a neglectful haze of confused disdain, semi-racism and a sort of uncomprehending “eh?” in the British media– are welcome for their potential authoritativeness.
Sweeney’s recounting of his exploits to ‘PM’s’ talented host Eddie Mair sounded intriguing until Mair asked him how he actually got access to the DPRK to undertake such a key-piece of investigation. Sweeney, loudly and pompously, live on air flatly stated “…that I’m not allowed to say…”. Blimey! I though perhaps the fading Panorama programme has pulled off a bit of coup in Korean analytic terms. Perhaps, I imagined, John Sweeney, of all people, had received privileged access to the hidden hinterland of the North, and would be riding in a KPA truck into the sacred forests of Mt Baekdu.
How absurdly disappointing, then, has it been to discover that in fact Panorama and the BBC had been trying to dress up going on a ‘conventional’ package tour across the DMZ as serious investigative journalism. Not only that but somehow they had roped the LSE’s annual Grimshaw Society trip into it in a feat of selfish subterfuge, not known to the LSE or properly by the students involved (told of the journalists involvement when they’d arrived in Beijing some half way round the planet and considerably lighter financially), but apparently known and risk assessed by the risk assessment division of the BBC’s own labyrinthine bureaucracy.
As for the programme itself, broadcast finally at 20:30GMT on the 15th of April, following the denunciation of not only the LSE, but also the upper echelons of the British academic elite (ie the British Academy and Royal Society) , it was revealed to be a pitiful, underwhelming collection of ridiculous clichés about the North, decontextualised, paranoid and strangely edited into something akin to a Stalinist horror movie.
Sweeney’s own keening, sad face looming at times through a barbed wire fence and the outré geographic space beyond the hotel garden which he deemed representative of a ‘real’ North Korea. Sweeney’s analytic investigative nous apparently failed him at this point, as just beyond that perceived manifest autocratic line of division the geographically minded viewer could plainly make out a well ploughed private agricultural plot…this in a politico/philosophic space in which the notion of the private/individual is negated. Later on the viewer witnessed not only Sweeney’s faux-ironic and undignified attempt at deep bowing in the direction of a Kim Il Sung statue as well as the very beginnings of an authentic Sweeney ‘freakout’ at an employee of an unnamed Pyongyang medical institution who was not about to present the sick and decrepid of the DPRK to these visitors.
Frankly there was not anything in this programme that anyone with 900 pounds in their pocket a clean passport and a willingness to put up with the Hotel Sosan’s dining room décor for a week couldn’t have learnt or seen for themselves. While it is always pleasing to see the face of BR Myers on one’s television, his and other’s analysis that the key reason we should be afraid of or hostile to the DPRK is that essentially they are Nazi’s is firstly, ridiculous as any reading of the history of the DPRK’s more internationalist endeavours in the developmental and agricultural field will tell you – either in Korean or in English. Secondly such analyses are available to all via Amazon or in all good bookshops as are the narratives proffered and presented by those who self designate and are designated as ‘refugee’s’ or ‘defectors’ from the DPRK, and not worth this sub-boys own farcical attempt at subterfuge.
Ultimately this whole exercise is a pointless exercise in risk on the part of the BBC, but risk at someone else’s expense, be they LSE students or North Koreans. The response of the BBC’s higher echelons to the whole thing, utter obfuscation, confusion and pompous blustery mud-slinging in the direction of the LSE students has echoes of the denouement of the previous Director General George Entwistle’s short reign when he was hoisted by his own ridiculous, bumbling petard by John Humphries on the BBC’s flag ship ‘Today’ program.
Intriguingly the Daily Mail (“Der Stürmer” for the grumpy, resentful Englishman/woman of a certain class, with a side project in the most virulent and self contradictory militaristic Zionism, for those unaware of its charms) nominally a friend of Sweeney (for whom he wrote a ludicrous pre-Panorama op-ed), appears to be hanging out Sweeney to dry having realised perhaps that it has bet on the wrong horse with this and has even revealed that its bête noire from the previous time it tried to attack the BBC, ex Head of News Helen Boaden (sacked after the recent Jimmy Saville debacle) was partly involved in the assessment of the entire exercise’s risk profile.
The dressing up by the BBC of something that’s analytically nothing in a fit of hyperventilation and hyperbole is a real sadness for me. Why bother doing any serious investigation, analysis or critique at an important time when ‘rollback’ rants will do. Why bother rising above the rhetorical onslaught presented by a narratively and presentationally desperate North when you can fit the cliché of the untrustworthy, devious westerner of the KCNA’s heated, sweaty dreams.
In reality despite the fact that I have no academic or analytic understanding pertaining to the level of debriefing/discipline those local guides/officials/bureaucrats from the KTIC will be subjected to given all of this, but like others I believe they should be the focus of our real concern in this whole situation, they don’t get to go to the airport, fly home and pontificate like “Professor Sweeney”.