Accuracy in Media

It’s easy to fool the press. Just ask the BBC. On Friday, the BBC’s international TV news channel apologized after being duped into airing an interview with a phony Dow Chemical spokesman who said the firm would pay billions of dollars in compensation for India’s 1984 Bhopal disaster. The BBC had been set up by left-wing environmental activists who wanted to bash the “killer companies” in the corporate world.

The phony interview was broadcast on the twentieth anniversary of the gas-leak disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands. Union Carbide is now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical.

In the interview the phony spokesman for Dow Chemical, Jude Finisterra, told the BBC that Dow Chemical would pay $12 billion to victims. Union Carbide paid $407 million in damages in 1989.

A couple of hours later the BBC announced it had been the victim of “an elaborate deception” and added they were “investigating how the deception happened.” The BBC explained “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.”

The BBC added: “The BBC also immediately contacted Dow Chemicals and apologized to them. The BBC is looking into the incident to establish the background and how the interview got to air. A report will be made to the BBC’s deputy director-general, Mark Byford.”

“Elaborate hoax” is just the BBC’s way of trying to salvage some of its pride ?in other words, they want you to believe it took a devilishly clever and unbelievably sophisticated effort to dupe the broadcast giant.

In reality, the truth is the BBC set itself up from start to finish in this hoax.  Media reports carried the BBC explanation that it got Jude Finisterra’s name from the Dow site which must have been “hacked” or “mirrored.” The Telegraph newspaper of India reported one BBC insider breathlessly suggested that if hackers could capture the official websites of leading organizations and companies, journalists would need to rethink their whole news-gathering strategy.

It now appears that the BBC was looking at the wrong website all along. According to the imposter, whose real name is Andy Bichlbaum, the BBC contacted requesting an interview with an official. The site is a satirical site set up by a group of activists, “The Yes Men,” that mocks Dow and was only too happy to set up the interview with the phony corporate spokesman. The BBC apparently made no effort to confirm his identity. So much for the “elaborate hoax” theory or the need for an “investigation.” 

Jude (patron saint of lost causes) Finisterra (the end of the earth) went live on BBC in his rumpled suit at 9:00 am GMT from the BBC’s studios in Paris, complete with Eiffel Tower dialed into the background. The interviews were broadcast live on the BBC channels, BBC World and BBC News 24, and BBC Radio 4 also led its 10 a.m. news with him. The story then was picked up by Reuters, which dropped the story when they realized it was fake?a couple of hours later.

Dow Chemical also finally chimed in and said the story was not true and “Finisterra” was not its employee.

Dow shares fell 0.6 percent in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange, after the hoax had been revealed. They had earlier fallen in Frankfurt after the report by more than three percent?but recovered just 20 cents down.

Meanwhile, media reported that the BBC was tonight going ahead with its plans to broadcast a documentary titled “Bhopal: An Accident Waiting to Happen.” Indian media quipped that so far, the BBC has no plans to do a drama documentary on “How the BBC fell for a hoax: an accident waiting to happen.”

The mistake comes as the publicly funded broadcaster is in the middle of a once-a-decade review by the government and faces huge personnel cuts. Earlier this year, two BBC executives were forced out when an inquiry lambasted the BBC’s reporting on the lead-up to the Iraq war.

Drawing lessons from the hoax, the Seattle Times editorialized that the incident shows the “downside of the Internet” which can carry “lies.”

Well, it helps if you’re looking at the right site, Seattle. Some elementary fact-checking would have saved the BBC from this embarrassment.

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