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BBC confesses to falling for Bhopal hoax


AM - Saturday, 4 December , 2004  08:08:00

Reporter: Kirsten Aiken

HAMISH ROBERTSON: As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the worst-ever industrial disaster in Bhopal, the BBC's coverage of the story has left the organisation red-faced and searching for answers.

The British broadcaster, which like the ABC has had a long presence in India, claimed that the Dow Chemical Company was now ready to accept its full responsibility for the tragedy - and provide further help to the many thousands who still require medical treatment.

But the BBC has now had to make an embarrassing apology - admitting it was duped by activists seeking to increase the pressure on Dow to deliver compensation and clean up the accident site.

Here's our London Reporter, Kirsten Aiken.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: As the world's media marks the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, BBC World secured an interview with a man purported to be from Dow Chemical who claimed the company would accept responsibility for the tragedy that is estimated to have claimed 22,000 lives.

It would have represented a major backdown by Dow if the BBC's supposed scoop had been true.

STEVEN COLE BBC: This is BBC News from BBC World, I'm Steven Cole.

A look at the headlines. Dow Chemical tells BBC World it will accept full responsibility for the world's worst industrial accident

HOAXER: Today, I'm very, very happy to announce that for the first time Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe.

STEVEN COLE BBC: The company says it will clean up the site

KIRSTEN AIKEN: Dow was quick to announce it had done no such thing, and that the BBC had fallen victim to a hoax.

Dow Europe spokeswoman, Marina Ashanin.

MARINA ASHANIN: There was no basis whatsoever for this report, and we also confirm that Jude Finestra (phonetic) is neither an employee nor a spokesperson for Dow.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: The BBC has since apologised to Dow, and is now conducting an internal investigation into how the broadcaster could have been so easily duped, and apparently by a group aiming to change the world one prank at a time.

Two years ago the Yes Men posed as employees of the World Trade Organisation at as certified practising accountants meeting in Sydney. They convinced the CPA Association that the WTO had decided it would not longer pursue globalisation.

More recently, they starred in their own prize-wining documentary. So were they responsible for the attack on Dow at the BBC's expense?

I put the question to Yes Man, Andy Bichlbaum.

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, we were less irresponsible than Dow Chemical Corporation, I must say. In other words, yes, we were responsible.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: Activists in Bhopal claim that what you did was actually a cruel hoax against the victims. What do you say to that?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, we are aware that we did create some false hopes, and we do feel bad about that, but we've got to keep this in context I mean, we were trying to show that Dow Chemical Company could easily do the right thing. I mean, it is Dow that has kept these people in a state of perpetual false hope for a number of years, and these people have waited 20 years have undergone 20 years of agony those who are still alive because of Union Carbide, which is fully Dow's responsibility. And so to accuse of doing something bad in this context, when one person dies every day in Bhopal, is a little far fetched, I think.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: Were you surprised that the BBC fell for your story?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, certainly. They are a very reputable news organisation.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: And the BBC wasn't the only one to fall for the hoax. The financial markets saw Dow's share price drop soon after then interview was broadcast, although it recovered after the deception was exposed.

What hasn't changed is the plight of the people in Bhopal, who hope to be able to maintain the pressure on Dow to admit liability and clean up the site, once the specific interest in the 20th anniversary of the disaster has subsided.

This is Kirsten Aiken reporting for Saturday AM.