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December 3rd, 2004 6:57 pm
BBC fooled by Bhopal hoaxer

By Jeffrey Goldfarb / Reuters

The BBC's international TV news channel has apologised after being duped into airing an interview with a fake Dow Chemical spokesman who said the firm would pay billions of dollars in compensation for India's Bhopal disaster.

BBC World broadcast the promise on Friday by a man identified as Jude Finisterra, but later said it had been the victim of "an elaborate deception".

Dow Chemical says it bears no responsibility for one of the world's worst industrial disasters, 20 years ago on Friday, in which more than 3,500 people died after lethal gas escaped from a chemical plant in the central Indian city Bhopal.

Activist Andy Bichlbaum convinced the broadcaster he was a Dow spokesman by putting his number on a fake Web site for the company. The BBC acknowledged it had been duped and apologised for airing the hoax.

Bichlbaum later said his goal was to show that "another world is possible" if Dow did the right thing and paid victims.

In the interview, he told the BBC Dow Chemical was taking responsibility for the disaster and would pay $12 billion (6.2 billion pounds) to victims.

Dow Chemical quickly said the story was not true and "Finisterra" was not its employee. The company says it bears no legal responsibility for the disaster and owes victims nothing.

The Bhopal factory was owned by Union Carbide, now a Dow subsidiary, which paid $407 million to Bhopal residents in 1989.

Several other news organisations including Reuters reported the phoney spokesman's comments to the BBC. Reuters withdrew its story once BBC World said it had been deceived.

"We apologise to Dow and to anyone who watched the interview who may have been misled by it," the BBC said in a statement read out during a subsequent news bulletin. "Of course, the BBC is investigating how the deception happened."


Channel 4 news later identified "Finisterra" as Bichlbaum, whose "Yes Men" group hoaxes businesses and governments and has targeted Dow before over Bhopal.

Bichlbaum told Channel 4 he had carried out the hoax to show what the company should do for the victims for the disaster.

"The 120,000 people that are estimated to need medical care because of the Bhopal catastrophe are going to need it for their whole lives. They've already needed it for 20 years," he said.

Bichlbaum said he heard Bhopal residents broke down in tears when hearing of the report and he felt bad they were disappointed.

"There were people in tears of joy when they found out, and indeed it is very sad that this isn't the case. But you have to realise that this is Dow's doing: Dow could make the tears of joy real," he said.

He could face civil and criminal legal action if tracked down, legal experts say. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has in the past filed charges against individuals who have issued fraudulent statements about firms.

"Finisterra has made false statements that have a connection with a trading market and if he knew they were false, that is a crime," said Professor Steve Thel of New York's Fordham Law School. The SEC declined to comment.

Dow shares fell 0.6 percent to $49.64 in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange, which took place after the hoax had been unmasked. They had earlier fallen in Frankfurt after the report by some two euros -- more than three percent -- but recovered to 37.40 euros, just 20 cents down.

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