BBC gets fooled on Bhopal anniversary story

By Jon Friedman
Last Updated: 12/3/2004 5:05:13 PM

NEW YORK (CBS.MW) -- In a media hoax coming on the 20th anniversary of the Union Carbide Bhopal disaster, Britain's BBC mistakenly reported Friday that Dow Chemical would take complete responsibility for the tragedy in which thousands of people died.

Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical (DOW), the parent of Union Carbide, immediately denied any connection with the announcement reported by the BBC, which quoted somebody posing as a company spokesperson.

"There is no basis whatsoever for this report," said Terri McNeill, spokeswoman for Dow Chemical.

For the BBC, the incident created an embarrassing situation for one of the few media organizations that truly can claim a worldwide audience.

"If someone is determined to dupe a journalist, even the most responsible news organization in the world can get caught up," said Robert Thompson, a journalism professor at Syracuse University.

"But this example adds fuel to the fire when people express skepticism about the credibility of the big television networks," Thompson said. "What remains to be seen is whether the BBC was duped because of its own negligence."

The BBC, interviewing a person posing as a Dow spokesman, carried its report live on BBC World and subsequently on BBC News 24 and BBC Radio.

The interview, in which the imposter claimed Dow Chemical "admitted" responsibility for the Dec. 3, 1984 disaster and was setting up a $12 billion victims' compensation fund, was picked up and cited by other news organizations, including CBS MarketWatch.

Union Carbide reached a $470 million settlement with India to cover all claims stemming from the accident in 1989 and handed full responsibility for the site to the Madhya Pradesh state government in 1998.

In a subsequent statement after learning of the hoax, the BBC said it "has moved swiftly to retract" the interview and apologized to Dow Chemical. It also said it's investigating what went wrong and will report its findings to BBC Deputy Director-General Mark Byford.

The BBC has battled recently to restore its journalistic luster following a debacle over its investigative reporting into British intelligence on Iraqi arms.

Last January, a senior judge cleared Prime Minister Tony Blair's government of charges that it had deliberately misled the public in a September 2002 intelligence dossier on whether Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Those charges had been presented during a BBC radio report in May 2003.

For the media in general, the hoax is just the latest in a series of missteps that have eroded credibility with the public.

In the past 18 months, both the New York Times and USA Today shook up the top ranks in their newsrooms after publishing highly inaccurate stories.

A few months ago, CBS News apologized for airing a flawed story on President Bush's military service in the National Guard.

Viacom, parent company of CBS, is also a significant investor in MarketWatch Inc., the publisher of this report.

© 1997-2004, Inc.

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