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Updated: Fri 3 Dec 2004 | 21:24 GMT
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BBC apologises after Bhopal hoax
Fri Dec 3, 2004 04:32 PM GMT
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By Jeffrey Goldfarb

LONDON (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 U.S. company accepted responsibility for India's Bhopal disaster.

BBC World broadcast the comments twice 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.

A Dow Chemical spokeswoman in Switzerland confirmed the BBC report was wrong and that the man was not a Dow employee. The Bhopal factory was owned by Union Carbide, now a Dow subsidiary.

Several other news organisations including Reuters reported Finisterra'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."

In preparing for reports about the anniversary of the disaster, BBC reporters visited what they thought was Dow's Web site and contacted Finisterra, who was listed there as a company spokesman, the BBC said.

"The individual was contacted by the BBC and, during a series of phone calls, claimed that there would be a significant announcement to be made on behalf of the Dow Chemical company," it said. "He gave no further detail until the live interview."

The information given during the interview "was inaccurate, part of an elaborate deception", the BBC said. "The person did not represent the company and we want to make it clear that the information he gave was entirely inaccurate."

Finisterra, whose identity could not be confirmed, later told BBC's Radio 4 he was part of the group Yes Men, which hoaxes businesses and governments and which has gone after Dow before over Bhopal.

"I was speaking on behalf of Dow in a certain way. I was expressing what they should express," he said. "I have enough connection with Dow as everybody else on the planet. I use many of their products."

Finisterra, who said the group would strike again, said he had heard Bhopal residents broke down in tears when they learned of the report, and that he felt bad about it.

"This is an unfortunate result that we did anticipate might happen," he said.

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

"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 least of his problems is private liability because he likely does not have enough money -- but rather criminal sanctions."

An SEC spokesman declined to comment.

BBC World said its interview was recorded in Paris.

Dow shares declined 0.6 percent to $49.64 in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange. They had earlier fallen in Frankfurt after the report by some two euros but later recovered to 37.40 euros, just 20 cents down.

The company fell victim to a hoax two years ago by the Yes Men when the group posted a fake Dow Web site and directed journalists to it on the 18th anniversary of Bhopal.

A documentary film about the group has spotlighted their pranks against U.S. President George W. Bush and the World Trade Organisation.

The BBC has recently been embroiled in a row over how it is regulated and funded after its two top officials were forced to resign this year following sharp criticism of a report about the Iraq war.

The mistake comes as the broadcaster is in the middle of a once-a-decade review by the government.

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