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Tomorrow (Monday, April 15) Panorama will screen a film report by John Sweeney on North Korea. It was made by the BBC team going undercover on a trip by students from the London School of Economics.

It has angered the LSE, its students' union and officials from North Korea. 

This is also the second story this month to raise the issue of taking risks for stories.

Eleven days ago 26-year-old Lee Halpin was found dead in a boarded-up property in Newcastle. He was three days into a video project on homelessness for which he planned to sleep rough for a week.

It was intended to form part of his application for Channel 4's Investigative Journalism Programme. Applicants were asked to describe a time when they were "fearless" in pursuit of a story.

Some stories require taking risks, but who decides who should take them?

Two worrying changes are taking place in tandem: an escalation in the drama and danger some stories need to attract attention, and a scarcity of opportunities that is turning journalism more into a lottery than a legitimate career.

The best-selling book Freakonomics described the economics of drug-dealing, showbusiness and professional sport for those trying to get into these businesses.

In each case the rewards are pathetic except for the tiny number who make it to the top of the pile. Entrants to each business make sacrifices for little reward in the hope of being one of those few.

Channel 4's Investigative Journalism Programme says "we want to create jaw-dropping journalism" and "if you're one of the lucky applicants, you will get a contract for up to 12 months".

I have just finished teaching the Investigative Journalism module to undergraduates at Westminster University. To most of then investigative journalism automatically means going undercover.

My classes included lectures on how to write a risk-assessment, workshops on different ways of carrying out investigations and mentoring sessions on individual stories.

One wanted to bribe a civil servant in pursuit of an allegation that he was corruptly speeding up paperwork in immigration applications. We agreed that there was not yet sufficient evidence to proceed with the attempted bribe but to keep investigating.

Another wanted to mix with an extreme right-wing group, interviewing them about their plans for expanding in Britain. We discussed the risks and precautions she should take, and she came back - safely - with some good material.

Last year I helped a postgraduate student to produce an expose of a recruitment scam being practised on young people, and advised on what to do when two students wanted to cover demonstrations.

I'm not opposed to taking risks but to taking uncalculated risks. The nature of the calculation may mean we have insufficient information to produce an exact answer but we should still make a calculation.

Young people tend to be enthusiastic, idealistic and ambitious, especially those going into a competitive business which holds out the prospect of glittering prizes for fewer and fewer of them.

That business has a duty to ensure they are fully equipped for it.



 It is literally a Royal screw-up! We are to have a Royal Charter setting up a watchdog to oversee an independent regulator who will oversee the press.

Gilbert & Sullivan would have put that to music.

Instead of an Act of Parliament we will have a Royal Charter. Read more




The son of Leveson has overtaken its parent. The report from the "The Expert Group on the Leveson Report in Scotland" - which I dubbed MacLeveson - is only 30 pages long.

 Yet it goes further than the 2,000-page Leveson Report. It includes a draft Bill, presumably drawn up by the three lawyers in the five-person group, ready for the Scottish Parliament to pass. Read more


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I USED to think I had intelligent friends, but that was before Facebook.

My Facebook page has recently been cluttered with a video of a toddler laughing at a puppy chasing soap bubbles, an announcement that someone just played two word games, a warning of a new moon in Capricorn, and a picture of a dog's arse in which someone can see a likeness of Jesus.

Rearranging the last dozen words would encapsulate my opinion of Mark Zuckerberg's contribution to the decline of Western civilisation.

I look at my Facebook page less than once a month and dread that anyone believes its content is down to me.

However, my incontinent contributors appear geniuses compared to those on Channel 4's Don't Blame Facebook documentary.

They ranged from idiots showing themselves street-racing at 120mph on YouTube or splashing pedestrians, through a Scots Guardsman calling Kate Middleton a "posh bitch" on Facebook, to an Asda shop worker posing in store in unattractive postures.

All deserved the critical attention they attracted and none apparently tried to stop the programme. But then none had the money for legal advice of a nephew of Sir Richard Branson and third husband of actress Kate Winslett.

He was photographed half-naked at a birthday party two years ago and had remained visible on a friend's Facebook page with no privacy settings ever since. Yet when The Sun tried to print them, he got an injunction to stop them.

In a statement the couple last week said the pictures were "innocent but embarrassing" and "we refuse to accept that her career means our family can't live in a relatively normal life."

This normal life includes changing his name from Edward Abel Smith to Ned Rocknroll. As one post to UK Press Gazette mockingly suggested, someone "who changes their name from Abel Smith to Ned Rocknroll is clearly not trying to draw attention to himself".

The apparent ability of the wealthy to use law to turn publicity on and off at will is a serious concern to anyone interested in an open society.  

However, beneath the froth of embarrassing friends, thoughtless thrill-seekers and spoiled celebrities is an issue that should not left to be decided by multinational, profit-making companies like Facebook, YouTube or even News International.

Nor should it be restricted to those with the money to buy access to our courts. We need more awareness of what is properly private.

A few years ago I spoke at a Law Society conference with an officer from the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency. He explained how children of police officers were told not to post pictures of Daddy washing the car outside the house. Such innocent pictures could tell criminals the officer's address and car registration.

A couple of years ago the Press Complaints Commission ruled in favour of Loaded magazine and against a woman who had uploaded photographs of her well-endowed upper torso to her Bebo site when she was only 15. The pictures spread across the Internet.

Loaded published them under the headline "Wanted! The Epic Boobs girl!" offering a £500 reward for anyone persuading her to do a photo shoot. The PCC recognised the "questionable tastefulness" but said it had to have regard to "the extent to which material is already in the public domain."

The UK's media and Parliament should have taken a more sophisticated approach to privacy. Germany has what it calls a "law of forgetting", allowing those temporarily in the public eye to retreat back into private life.

This could enable naïve 15-year-old girls to reclaim their privacy while preventing curiously-named celebrity spouses censoring the media.