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Meet the Yes Men who hoax the world

The two men behind the Bhopal interview stunt reveal how they did it - and why they now feel sorry for the BBC. Vincent Graff reports

Monday December 13, 2004
The Guardian


Jude Finisterra was "a wreck" as he prepared for his big moment to arrive. Sitting in a BBC studio in France, he waited anxiously for the word to come down the line from London that the interview was about to begin. Finally it did. "Joining us live from Paris now is Jude Finisterra," announced the presenter on BBC World, the global news channel. "He's a spokesman for Dow Chemicals, which took over Union Carbide."

Finisterra, who had been invited in to talk about the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, stiffened his back - and then proceeded to tell the most extraordinary lies about Union Carbide, the company whose chemical leak 20 years ago in India killed more than 15,000 people.

"Today is a great day for all of us at Dow and I think for millions of people around the world as well," Finisterra told viewers. "Today I am very happy to announce that for the first time Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe." Revealing that "we have resolved to liquidate Union Carbide, this nightmare for the world and this headache for Dow", he said that the company was about to hand over $12bn in compensation to Bhopal's victims.

It took a full two hours for the "Dow spokesman" to be unmasked as a fraudster. By then $2bn had been temporarily wiped from the company's share value and Andy Bichlbaum - who played Finisterra (the name means "end of the world") - was surveying the trouble he and his co-conspirator Mike Bonanno had caused to Dow Chemicals and the BBC.

For make no mistake: had director general Mark Thompson not distracted everyone's attention by announcing the sacking of 5,000 of his colleagues last week, the corporation would have been forced to face up to an enormous cock-up. As it was, Thompson found room in a keynote speech last week to reiterate the importance of "the trustworthiness and accuracy of our journalism ... which is why we take last week's Bhopal hoax so seriously".

"It has been described so many times as an elaborate hoax, but it was not so elaborate," muses Bonanno. "The actual mechanics were so simple and straightforward." He and fellow American Bichlbaum, who call themselves the Yes Men, were able to pull it off after a BBC producer in search of a Dow spokesman stumbled across a website created by the Yes Men which carefully mimics the company's official site. Contrary to what has been reported, the Yes Men did not hack into the Dow Chemicals website. Instead they set up Dowethics.com, in which they posed as the multinational, telling the truth about the company as they see it, and (disastrously for the BBC) offered an email address for media inquiries. But that was two years ago. Bichlbaum and Bonanno had all but forgotten about the site when the BBC producer got in touch out of the blue. Their big regret is that it was the BBC that fell into the trap; most other broadcasters were not at risk, since they ignored the Bhopal anniversary (at least until the BBC hoax story came along).

"The BBC was not our target. Dow was. It just so happens that the BBC is one of the only news outlets that has consistently given a tonne of coverage to the Bhopal disaster and so they were desperate to find someone from Dow who would speak," says Bonanno, explaining that the chemical company refuses to talk about Bhopal. "If we had been able to get an invitation from Fox or ABC, NBC, CBS or anybody else, we would of course have chosen them over the BBC - because the coverage in general of the news is so much better on the BBC than what we are used to back at home."

Nor was their action an attempt to target any lax standards in journalism. "People are using this wrongly as indicative of the untrustworthiness of the media, which I do not think it proves at all," says Bonanno, now a media lecturer in New York State but a former freelance journalist.

"This is a simple case of human error. The BBC corrected the story within two hours - as soon as they knew it was incorrect. If every journalist had to verify every source - verify that they even exist - that would be impossible. We have no problem with journalists - if anything, the apparent 'gullibility' of journalists is a result of cutbacks, not having enough time to do stories. So I think we have a lot of sympathy for them."

Their biggest worry is that the BBC will look for a scapegoat. They do not think any producer ought to be singled out for his or her mistake. "We feel bad about that," says Bichlbaum. "Terrible," says his accomplice. "He does not deserve a bollocking." The Yes Men have form: their appearance on the BBC follows a similar one on CNBC three years ago in which Bichlbaum - this time as Granwyth Hulatberi, supposedly of the World Trade Organisation - argued that the rich are right because they have power, and the poor are wrong because they don't. They have argued similar causes as the WTO at conferences around the world, from Sydney to Salzburg.

One of their strangest stunts was delivered at a conference on the subject of "textiles of the future" in Finland three years ago. Having been invited to give the keynote address as a WTO spokesman, Bichlbaum complained about the problem with today's sweatshops. Workers in faraway factories on low wages, he argued, are just too free. A manager in New York cannot monitor workers in Rangoon. At which point, he pulled a cord, and his suit flew open to reveal a golden three-foot-long phallus. Or an "employee visualisation appendage", as he called it. The audience politely applauded.

Predictably, the recent US election provided an unmissable opportunity. They launched an campaign body calling itself "Yes Bush Can" - "a non-partisan organisation dedicated to re-electing George Bush and Dick Cheney", according to its website - and hired a battle bus to tour the country encouraging Republicans to sign Patriot Pledge petitions. They were not short of volunteers eager to sign up to undertakings such as "I support tax cuts favouring the elite, and I volunteer to pay more than my fair share of taxes to allow the elite to invest their money in our country's economy" and "I volunteer to give up some constitutional rights to support the war on terrorism".

The most bizarre aspect of all is that their antics are funded in part by grants from arts organisations such as the Guggenheim Foundation. Or so they claim. Less surprising, given the success of Michael Moore's adventures, is that they are the subject of a documentary film entitled The Yes Men, which opens in Britain next February. The Yes Men are not, of course, the first to have perpetrated a hoax on the media. In 1998, Channel 4 had to scrap a documentary about a father-daughter relationship after the two central characters were revealed to be unrelated but lovers. From the Hitler diaries to the Zinoviev letters to stories of "Surf rage" in Cornwall, newspapers have regularly been caught out.

But at heart they are still old-fashioned protesters. They still take to the streets every time there is a big anti-globalisation demo, and though they enjoy their hoax adventures, they say they are driven by a desire - however pompous it might sound - to reduce injustice in the world.

A few hours after they had fooled BBC World, Bichlbaum was invited back in to the corporation's studio in Paris, where he lives. This time he was appearing as himself, to explain to BBC3 why he had carried out the stunt. He was met by many of the same staff who had looked after him during his first broadcast. "One of them said: 'It's fair game.' They were happy to hear the announcement that Dow was going to take responsibility for Bhopal. That's the thing - everybody was happy to hear it. That is what we all want to hear."



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