THE BBC was forced to apologise yesterday after being duped by sophisticated internet hoaxers into reporting that victims of the Bhopal disaster were to receive $12 billion compensation.
The bogus story was broadcast on BBC World television, which is widely watched in India, and quickly picked up by the countrys media and international wire services.
Among the tens of thousands of people in Bhopal commemorating the 20th anniversary of the toxic gas leak at the citys Union Carbide factory, hopes of a major compensation package were raised.
That brief optimism was shattered when Dow Chemical, the company that now owns Union Carbide and was seeing its share price dip sharply, angrily contacted the BBC to tell it that the story was false.
As the story spread around the world, Dow shares opened down 3.4 per cent in Frankfurt and fell 50 cents in New York.
There were rumours that the story had been planted as part of a share-dealing scam. But soon it emerged that the most likely culprits were The Yes Men a pair of self-styled anti-corporate activist-pranksters, whose previous targets have included the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Bush campaign, McDonalds and Shell.
Mike and Andy, the names The Yes Men go under on their website, specialise in hoaxing the media and impersonating representatives of global corporations or organisations.
Their exploits in setting up a fake WTO website and then attending conferences and giving outlandish speeches posing as official WTO representatives are the subject of a forthcoming film.
They have also issued a deck of cards, parodying the Bush Administrations most-wanted Iraqis, which features Dick Cheney, Jeb Bush and leading business figures.
Dow has been a victim of The Yes Men before, when they issued fake press releases on Bhopal purporting to come from the company and setting up bogus Dow websites.
It was through a rogue internet site that the group appears to have ensnared the BBC.
A BBC World producer researching the history of the disaster, where more than 18,000 people died after a huge toxic gas leak, was diverted on to a false website and given details for a media spokesman.
The producer was offered an exclusive interview, to be broadcast live from Paris to coincide with the 20th anniversary, at which a Dow spokesman would make a significant announcement. When it came at 9am yesterday, it was, indeed, a major exclusive.