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2004-12-06

Yes Men Hoax on BBC Reminds World of Dow Chemical’s Refusal to Take Responsibility for Bhopal Disaster

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The 20th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy was a day of embarrassment for Dow chemicals and the major news media around the world when the BBC fell victim to a hoax from a man claiming to be a Dow spokesperson who claimed full responsibility for the tragedy and announcing a multibillion dollar compensation package. We play the interview and speak with "Jude Finiseterra," a member of the Yes Men, which played the hoax. [includes rush transcript]

The 20th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy was a day of embarrassment for Dow chemicals, the present owner of Union Carbide and the major news media around the world.

On Friday the BBC World Satellite television channel broadcast an interview with a man identified as Jude Finisterra, who claimed to represent Dow chemicals.

Dow, which bought Union Carbide three years ago, has always maintained it "has no responsibility" for the 1984 disaster when tons of lethal gases leaked from a Union Carbide pesticide factory in the city of Bhopal, India. 7,000 people lost their lives within days. 15,000 more lost died in the following years. Around 100,000 others are still suffering chronic and debilitating illnesses. It was one of the worst industrial disasters in history and for years activists have called on the firm to take full responsibility for the disaster and to clean up the contaminated site.

In the interview, Finisterra said Dow had accepted responsibility for the accident and had set-up a multibillion dollar compensation package. The hoax ran twice on BBC World and was picked up by the major news wires before the BBC determined that no man named Jude Finisterra worked at Dow and he was an imposter. The company was forced to remind the world it did not take responsibility for the disaster and said there was no compensation fund set-up for the victims.

In Frankfurt, Dow’s share price fell 4.2 percent in 23 minutes, wiping $2 billion off its market value before recovering all the day"s losses three hours later. The BBC is continuing to apologize for running the interview today and says it has lunched an internal investigation. Later the man calling himself Finisterra told BBC radio he was part of the Yes Men.

  • Jude Finisterra, aka Andy Bichlbaum, a member of The Yes Men.
  • BBC World interview with Jude Finisterra.
  • BBC apology for interview.
  • Dow Chemical statement on interview.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn now, before we go to that interview, to Jude Finisterra, or so he identifies himself. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Thanks a lot, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: First of all, can you tell us who you are with?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yes, Jude Finisterra is actually a made up name. Jude is the patron saint of impossible causes, and Finisterra means "end of the earth," which kind of represents the situation there, I think, in some way. I’m with the Yes Men and we have done this, sort of, what we call identity correction on a number of different targets. This represents our latest effort.

AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly did you do? How did you end up being called for an interview with the BBC?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: A couple of years ago we set up a website that looked a lot like the real Dow Chemical website but was intended to raise questions about its refusal to do anything about the Bhopal situation, you know, 18 years ago then after the catastrophe. Dow, who owns Union Carbide, refuses to clean up the site, still doesn’t two years after that, refuses to compensate the victims who received $500 apiece and Dow actually, the head of the Dow P.R. team went on record saying that’s plenty good for an Indian, whereas in reality it only pays for a year of medical care. So with this site, we intended to explain from Dow’s perspective exactly why they wouldn’t do anything and we sent out a press release saying that in fact Dow was responsible only to its shareholders, and no Bhopali is a shareholder. So about a week and a half ago we received an email at this website Dowethics.com from somebody who hadn’t read it very carefully, and she wanted Dow’s official statement on the Bhopal situation, and she wanted it on December 3, the 20th anniversary of catastrophe. So we, of course, obliged and spent quite a while trying to figure out on what our approach would be and settled on this, the approach we actually took, because we figured it would result in the most media and possibly a lot of media getting in the United States, which often completely ignores the anniversary.

AMY GOODMAN: So you went into a studio in Paris?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: That’s right. Yes. Because I live in Paris, and Mike’s here, as well — another Yes Man — and so we couldn’t afford to go to London what with the pound and the dollar. So they set up a studio here in Paris and went in on the morning of December 3. I was hooked in with the host in London, and it was a live interview, and I announced the good news.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we listen to and watch what happened and right after this Dow’s share price fell 4.2% in 23 minutes, wiping $2 billion off its market value. This is, well, he identified himself as Jude Finisterra, a Dow spokesperson being interviewed by BBC television last Friday.

BBC WORLD: Well, joining us live from Paris now is Jude Finisterra. He’s a spokesman for Dow Chemical, which took over Union Carbide.

Good morning to you. A day of commemoration in Bhopal. Do you now accept responsibility for what happened?

JUDE FINISTERRA: Steve, yes. Today is a great day for all of us at Dow and, I think, for millions of people around the world, as well. It’s twenty years since the disaster. And today I’m very, very happy to announce that for the first time Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe.

We have a $12 billion plan to finally, at long last, fully compensate the victims, including the 120,000 who may need medical care for their entire lives, and to fully and swiftly remediate the Bhopal plant site.

Now, when we acquired Union Carbide three years ago, we knew what we were getting, and it’s worth $12 billion. $12 billion. We have resolved to liquidate Union Carbide, this nightmare for the world and this headache for Dow, and use the $12 billion to provide more than $500 per victim, which is all that they’ve seen, a maximum of just about $500 per victim. It is not “plenty good for an Indian,” as one of our spokespersons unfortunately said a couple of years ago. In fact, it pays for one year of medical care. We will adequately compensate the victims.

Furthermore, we will perform a full and complete remediation of the Bhopal site, which, as you mentioned, has not been cleaned up. When Union Carbide abandoned the site twenty years ago, or sixteen years ago, they left tons of toxic waste, which continues —- the site continues to be used as a playground by children. Water continues to be drunk from the groundwater underneath. It’s a mess, Steve, and we at Dow -—

BBC WORLD: It’s a mess, certainly, Jude. That’s good news that you have finally accepted responsibility. Some people would say too late. It’s three years —

JUDE FINISTERRA: Yes.

BBC WORLD: — almost four years on. How soon is your money going to make a difference to the people in Bhopal?

JUDE FINISTERRA: Well, as soon as we can get it to them, Steve. We’ve begun the process of liquidating Union Carbide. This is, as you mentioned, late, but it is the only thing we can do. When we acquired Union Carbide, we did settle their liabilities in the United States immediately. And we are now, three years later, prepared to do the same in India. We should have done it three years ago; we are doing it now. I would say that it’s better late than never.

And I would also like to say that this is no small matter, Steve. This is the first time in history that a publicly owned company of anything near the size of Dow has performed an action which is significantly against its bottom line simply because it’s the right thing to do. And our shareholders may take a bit of a hit, Steve, but I think that if they’re anything like me, they will be ecstatic to be part of such a historic occasion of doing right by those that we’ve wronged.

bq. BBC WORLD: And does this mean you will also cooperate in any future legal actions in India or the USA?

bq. JUDE FINISTERRA: Absolutely, Steve. One of our non-financial commitments is to press the United States government to finally extradite Warren Anderson, who fled India after being arrested in 1984. He posted $2,000 bail on multiple homicide charges and fled India promptly. We are going to press the United States government to extradite Mr. Anderson, who is living in Long Island, to India to finally face the charges and, I believe, they may be lenient. We are also going to engage in unprecedented transparency. We are going to release finally the full composition of the chemicals and the studies that were performed by Union Carbide shortly after the catastrophe. This information has never been released, Steve, and it’s time for it to be released in case any of that information can be of use to medical professionals. And finally, we’re going to perform — we are going to fund research. Any interested researcher can contact Dow’s ethics and compliance office. We are going to fund with no strings attached research into the safety of any Dow product whose safety — many competent scientists have raised doubts about many Dow products, and we do not want to be a company that sells products that may have long-term negative effects on the world. This is a momentous occasion and our new CEO, Andrew Liveris, who has been our CEO for just a month, less than a month, has decided to take Dow in this unprecedented direction.

bq. BBC WORLD: Jude, we will leave it there. Thank you for joining us. Just to reiterate what Jude Finisterra, the spokesman for Dow Chemical has just said, he says Dow Chemical now fully accepts responsibility for the events in Bhopal twenty years ago. And they will cooperate in future legal action.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the BBC television on Friday with the anchor outro-ing Jude Finisterra, spokesperson for Dow. In fact, this was all a hoax and the real Jude Finisterra, or I should say the man who was posing as the person who doesn’t exist, a member of the Yes Men, joins us on the phone from Paris where he lives and from where he did that interview. Tell us what your real name is.

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Andy Bichlbaum is my real name, and I’m with, as you said, the Yes Men.

AMY GOODMAN: Is that your real real name?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Oh, sure. As close as it gets.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to the BBC apologizing for their report.

bq. BBC: The world’s worst industrial accident is being remembered in India today. This morning at 9:00 GMT and 10:00 GMT, BBC World ran an interview with someone purporting to be from the Dow Chemical Company about Bhopal. This interview was inaccurate and part of a deception. The person interviewed didn’t represent the company. We want to make clear that the information he gave was entirely inaccurate. We apologize to Dow and to anyone who watched the interview who may have been misled by it.

AMY GOODMAN: Again that was from BBC, their apology. Then there was Dow , well, correcting the apology that their supposed spokesperson had issued earlier that day.

bq. MARINA ASHANIN: This morning a false statement was carried by BBC World regarding responsibility for the Bhopal tragedy. The individual who made the statement identified himself as a Dow spokesperson named Jude Finisterra. Dow confirms that there was no basis whatsoever for this report, and we also confirm that Jude Finisterra is neither an employee nor a spokesperson for Dow.

AMY GOODMAN: That the spokesperson of Dow. Again Dow’s share price fell 4.2% in 23 minutes, wiping $2 billion off its market value before recovering all the days losses hours later. What are your thoughts today, Andy, after having done this? And how far did this news go? I mean, BBC takes it pretty far. Who else picked up the story?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, Amy, it seemed to get picked up pretty much everywhere. Reuters immediately wrote about the apology by Dow and then, of course, issued a retraction itself. That was picked up by a number of places. The retraction traveled very, very far, and a lot of the articles were sympathetic and brought Bhopal and Dow into the, into the subject again and again and again, so I think probably dozens of articles that wouldn’t have been written were written about it, which was the intention, really. It was unfortunate that it had to be the BBC because the BBC had been covering Bhopal rather extensively and well. We would have much rather hoaxed FOX or ABC or NBC or CBS. But it was the BBC that was covering the issue. Those other places couldn’t give a rat’s ass about Bhopal.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, if you had done this hoax on FOX, you would soon be heard on many more stations than even they’re heard now, because FOX has just made an agreement with Clear Channel which owns over 1,200 radio stations in the country that Clear Channel stations will run FOX News headlines every hour for five minutes.

ANDY BICHLBAUM: They are clearly the correct target.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true that you issued another press release later in the day?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yes, we felt that we owed Dow some public relations work so we issued an explanation by Dow that in fact the Jude Finisterra fellow in the morning had not been their representative and that in fact everything he said was incorrect. Then we proceeded to outline exactly what was incorrect. Dow was not going to remediate the site even though it wouldn’t cost very much; they were not going to compensate people to more than $500, $500 was in fact enough for an Indian, plenty good for an Indian, etc., etc. Everything they were not going to do we just spelled it out for them, since all they had said was he was not their spokesperson. We thought that was insufficient.

AMY GOODMAN: So this was a press release that you put out under Dow’s letterhead?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Right, exactly. Well, we sent it from Dowethics.com and signed it Dow.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many picked up that story?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, it was the top story on News.google.com, as was the original apology by Dow and the retraction of the apology. Our own retraction of our own, of Dow’s apology was also for a brief time, maybe an hour or so, the top story on news.google.com, so — I don’t know if it was printed in anything or broadcast on anything, but it was at least there.

AMY GOODMAN: And the feelings of giving false hope to people in Bhopal who perhaps read these reports in the Indian newspapers?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Right, that is the most difficult thing about this. And, in fact, we didn’t expect it to run as long as it would. We really thought that the BBC would catch on pretty much immediately or Dow would react even more likely immediately. They didn’t react for at least an hour, so there was a much longer time when people thought it was real.

AMY GOODMAN: That would mean that Dow would have had to jump in and say, no, we are not sorry.

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Right, and they did eventually, but they took at least an hour to do that, and we thought that they would immediately contact the BBC, even perhaps as it was running. I kept hearing voices in the background and thinking I was about to get cut off during the interview. But two hours later it was still a story. So that was sad. Also, but at the same time we are talking about two hours of false hopes versus 20 years of unrealized ones. And suffering for those who are still alive and weren’t killed. And all hopes are false until they are realized. So, you know, any protest sort of brings false hopes, any protest against something as maniacal as Dow. Like Dow is not likely to do anything about this, and so anytime you hope that it is, it’s false in a way.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jude, I want to thank you for being with us, or Andy Bichlbaum, or whoever you are. I want to thank you for joining us. Jude Finisterra/Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men, speaking to us from Paris. This is Democracy Now!

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