LONDON: A daring hoax perpetrated on the BBC and Dow Chemical early this month was a spectacular success for an activist group seeking to draw attention to corporate malfeasance.
But for the involved companies, it was an unabashed fiasco.
On December 3 - the 20th anniversary of a Union Carbide chemical plant explosion in Bhopal, India that killed thousands - BBC World television interviewed a man they thought was a spokesperson for Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide.
The "spokesman," who called himself Jude Finisterra, announced that Dow had decided to take drastic steps to remedy the situation in Bhopal, including establishing a $12 billion fund for the disaster's victims and extraditing former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson to India, where he is wanted on homicide charges in connection with the incident.
Dow's announcement immediately made worldwide headlines. The problem was, it didn't come from Dow.
"Jude Finisterra" was actually Andy Bichlbaum, a member of the anti-corporate activist group called The Yes Men. The group set up a "mirror" website, dowethics.com, which had directed a clueless BBC staffer to Bichlbaum.
"We [tried] to show that Dow could very easily fix this [Bhopal situation], and we showed how," Bichlbaum, speaking from Europe, said. "Dow has tried to convince people it does not have responsibility and can't do anything in Bhopal."
Dow purchased Union Carbide after the incident and maintains that it has no legal liability in the case.
The hoax was discovered hours later, after Dow was flooded with media calls. Marina Ashanin, Dow's European public affairs director, said the company immediately issued a statement to quell the story. "Information moves so fast, that once our message got out there, that reoriented everyone," she said.
Terri McNeill, Dow's corporate media relations manager, would not comment on what actions the company might take against The Yes Men or BBC.
A BBC source who asked not to be identified called the hoax "incredibly elaborate" and said that the network is currently compiling a report on what went wrong. The source criticized Bichlbaum's stunt as "tasteless."
But Bichlbaum said that when he returned to the BBC studio for another interview, "they shook my hand and laughed."