Opinion: Bhopal hoax inflicts widespread damage

As this edition is the final PRWeek of 2004, it behoves this column to touch on some of the big issues of the year. Just as I was scratching my head over this tall order, the BBC came to my rescue with its Bhopal bloomer. As a theme it has all the elements: corporate responsibility - or lack of it - activists operating double-bluffs, an overenthusiastic media, a vivid demonstration of the power of the internet, and dented reputations.

To recap: on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, the BBC ran an interview with a 'Jude Finisterra' who purported to be a spokesperson for Dow Chemical Corp, owner of Union Carbide Corporation since 1999.

He said Dow was taking full responsibility for the disaster that killed 20,000 and was setting up a $12bn compensation fund for the 120,000 still in need of long-term medical assistance. Tears of joy were shed in Madhya Pradesh while Dow shares plummeted.

All was not what it seemed however. Finisterra turned out to be Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men, a comedy double-act who specialise in prankster-style direct activity. They are so credible that previous stunts include impersonating the WTO at a conference in Salzberg where they proposed a free-market alternative to democracy - auctioning votes to the highest bidder.

No one comes out of the Bhopal stunt well. The BBC, which obviously got carried away at the prospect of such a huge scoop, apologised. But criticism of the corporation's source-checking in a week when director-general Mark Thompson announces record job losses raises serious questions about whether the BBC has the resources to live up to its reputation.

Even the Yes Men - who no doubt anticipated being feted as the heroic champions of the underdog - hardly covered themselves in glory. If there are any boards out there still harbouring images of open-toed-sandal-wearing activists, take note: when activists are credible enough to pass themselves off as spokespeople from major global corporations, you need to take them seriously. But the Yes Men's antics stood in sharp contrast to the dignity of the survivors' candle-lit vigil, and Bichlbaum seemed to be at a loss when victims' euphoria gave way to despondency.

The Yes Men have added to the pain of the Bhopal victims and provided respite for Dow when the corporation, not a couple of pranksters, should have been under the microscope.

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