London, Dec. 4: The hoaxer who called himself “Jude Finisterra” and fooled the BBC yesterday over Bhopal has been unveiled as Andy Bichlbaum, who is part of a comedy double act called The Yes Men.
Along with a partner, Mike Bonanno, the duo specialises in ridiculing organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and Dow Chemical by taking over their official websites and then making ludicrous claims on their behalf.
They even go to conferences and pretend to be representatives of the organisations whose identities they have “stolen” in order to make their political points.
To add to the BBC’s embarrassment, it has also emerged that the corporation reviewed a film made by The Yes Men and concluded: “Critics have given The Yes Men a thumbs up. They say not only do The Yes Men make their point brilliantly, but following the merry pranksters around as they carry out their hoaxes makes for hilarious viewing.”
But the BBC found Bichlbaum’s stunt neither funny nor hilarious yesterday when he appeared on BBC World, BBC News 24 and BBC Radio 4, purporting to be a spokesman for Dow Chemical, Union Carbide’s parent company, accepted responsibility for the Bhopal disaster and offered a compensation package worth $12 billion.
Last night, Channel 4 News, one of the rivals to the BBC, revealed that Jude Finisterra was an alias — Jude is the patron saint of lost causes, Finisterra suggests the “end of the world” — for The Yes Men campaigner, Andy Bichlbaum.
The programme interviewed Bichlbaum, who justified carrying out his cruel hoax on the Bhopal victims. He said Dow could make a reality of the tears of joy shed by people in Bhopal when they heard about the “payout”, before it was exposed as a hoax.
Bichlbaum urged the company to accept responsibility for the disaster and pay compensation. He said: “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. It would be a very simple matter for Dow to do that.”
Excusing his own conduct, he added: “We may have given people two hours of false hope, Dow has given them 20 years of suffering.”
The Yes Men have not been shy about promoting themselves in the media. It has been claimed on their behalf that “The Yes Men impersonate whoever they consider to be the world’s biggest criminals to show them for who they truly are. A few years ago, the duo built a satirical website for the WTO that landed them invitations from media and conference planners who thought they were the real McCoy”.
It was also disclosed that The Yes Men impersonated the WTO at a conference in Salzburg, where they “praised Hitler’s economic policies and advocated the idea of selling votes in democracies”.
Bichlbaum, who has made fun of President Bush and the Republican Party in the US, has explained how he uses humour to get his propaganda into the media. “The role of the media in reporting news is so tightly conscripted, it’s unbelievable, so that humour is one of the very few ways to actually get something into the media,” he commented.
In September, American cinemas also screened “an eponymous documentary film about them and their anti-corporate pranks”.
One review of the film said that “The Yes Men (sometimes also known as Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) engage in prankster-style direct activism, revealing the illogical and hypocritical practices of institutions that habitually ‘put profits ahead of everything else’. Their usual mode is face to face, as they attend a conference or address a group of people in suits. Unlike fellow activist Michael Moore, however, The Yes Men, because they are so agreeable, tend to be invited to such events.”
The review also said: “One of their earliest interventions was online, that last bastion of anonymity in a mass media age. At the start of the last US presidential election, they were asked to design a George W. Bush parody site.”
The Yes Men developed a philosophy — “they would work within the very organisations they wanted to expose. They would steal identities, not to commit criminal mischief, but to correct them.”
In the film, Bonanno described the process of “identity correction”, as a means to address “these things that are not really presenting themselves accurately: we want to bring that out. We think the WTO is doing all these terrible things that are hurting people and they’re saying the exact opposite. And so, we’re interested in correcting their identity... We target people we see as ‘criminals’ and we steal their identity in order to make them honest, or try and present a more honest face”.
The reviewer said: “Indeed, you might call what goes on in The Yes Men poetic.”
The BBC review of the film was introduced in an indulgent manner: “Two merry pranksters posing as officials from the World Trade Organisation are the stars of the new documentary ‘The Yes Men’. It’s the latest offering in the recent wave of political films, but this one is more subversive — and by all accounts, funnier — than most.”
Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno “are activists who impersonate members of the World Trade Organisation, the international body which regulates worldwide trade and tariffs,” the reviewer said. “In 1999 the two created a parody of the WTO’s website on the Internet — and to their delight, people around the globe believed the activists were the real thing and started inviting them to conferences and onto television shows. They sound and look like WTO officials — but they talk utter nonsense.”