THE TIMES (UK): Cruel $12 billion hoax on Bhopal victims and BBC: “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.”: “…previous targets have included the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Bush campaign, McDonald’s and Shell.” (ShellNews.net) 4 Dec 04
By Sean O’Neill
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 country’s media and international wire services.
Hopes of a big compensation package were raised among the tens of thousands of people in Bhopal commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the toxic gas leak at the city’s Union Carbide factory.
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, McDonald’s and Shell.
The two use the names Mike and Andy on their website. They 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 Administration’s most-wanted Iraqis, which features Dick Cheney, Jeb Bush and leading business figures.
The Yes Men have targeted Dow before, issuing 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 twentieth anniversary, at which a Dow spokesman would make a “significant announcement”.
When it came at 9am yesterday, it was, indeed, a major exclusive.
The spokesman announced that the company was starting a $12 billion fund “to finally at long last compensate the victims including the 120,000 who may need medical care”.
An hour later, the story was considered so important that it was also leading bulletins on News 24, Radio 4 and many other BBC outlets. But as the interview was exposed to a wider audience and wiser heads within the corporation, alarm bells began ringing.
Dow had apparently reversed its official and firmly held position that Bhopal was “a tragic event” but one for which it bore “no responsibility”. And there was something odd about the name of this new spokesman: Jude Finisterra — named after the patron saint of lost causes and a Mexican landmark that translates as “the end of the Earth”.
A genuine Dow spokesman said that its London representative dispatched his first e-mail to the BBC demanding a retraction at 10am.
He added: “We had taken calls from seven different countries, including India, about the story. It took us 20 minutes to work out from which part of the BBC it was emanating and get in touch with them.” The company will consider its position over the weekend and could seek redress from the corporation.
The BBC apologised to Dow and said that a report on how the item came to be broadcast would be prepared for Mark Byford, the Deputy Director-General.
The hoaxers could not be contacted yesterday.