Yes Men, We Have No Bhopals
[T]he satirist is popularly regarded as a soul-spirited knave, and his ever victim's outcry for codefendants evokes a national assent. -- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
If evidence ever is needed to substantiate the acerbic definition of satire offered by Ambrose Bierce, one would need to look no farther than the cookie-cutter accounts in today's press. World newswires almost universally are picking on the British Broadcasting Corporation for falling victim to an interview prank on Friday. In the process, they virtually ignore the deserving target of the prank: Dow Chemical Corp., which has built a 20-year record of stonewalling, lies, and cynical political manipulation to avoid responsibility for killing three to ten thousand residents of Bhopal, India.
To his credit, Alan Cowell of the New York Times goes against the grain while producing a superbly balanced, informative, and complete account of the episode. The first two paragraphs of his dispatch are a model of succinct accuracy combined with appropriate context:
The BBC, Britain's public service broadcaster, acknowledged Friday that it had been tricked into broadcasting an interview with a man pretending to be a spokesman for Dow Chemical, who claimed that the company had taken the blame for the disaster in Bhopal, India, in 1984.
The hoax, contradicting Dow Chemical's rejection of any responsibility, came on the 20th anniversary of the catastrophe, when waves of lethal gas escaped from a chemical plant in Bhopal, in central India, killing more than 3,500 people and injuring thousands more. At the time, the plant was owned by the Union Carbide Corporation, which was taken over by Dow Chemical Company three years ago. Survivors have long complained that they have received inadequate compensation.
What happened was that early Friday morning, London time, BBC Radio-4 aired an interview with one "Jude Finesterra," who claimed to be a spokesman for Dow Chemical. Friday was the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal diaster. The BBC has been airing all week an in-depth series on the continuing hardships faced by Dow Chemical's victims. (Dow owned a substantial share of Union Carbide in 1984 and later bought the rest of the company.) The interview was run as a news item and not part of the series. BBC News thought it had an exclusive -- the unexpected pledge by Dow Chemical that at long last it will take responsiblity for compensating its subsidiary's victims. But what the BBC wound up with is something else entirely.
According to the Hindustan Times--
The alarm bells rang soon. It was realised by some sober elements in the BBC that if the statement was true then Dow had apparently reversed its stand that Bhopal was a tragic event but for it the company bore no responsibility. This stand had in fact made Amnesty International in its press release on the tragedy on November 29, urge that pressure be brought on Dow to see right.
Suspicion was also felt about the identity of the spokesman. His name was Jude Finisterra, named after the patron saint of lost causes and a Mexican landmark that means the end of the world.
Dow's stock reportedly dropped a couple of pounds before the hoax was discovered and the BBC issued an apology. Claiming the company's stock price "swung wildly" a CBS Marketwatch makes more of this modest trading range than seems warranted by the daily chart . And, like most news accounts other than Cowell's, the CBS business news web site makes almost no mention of the underlying target for the prank. Indeed, the only context CBS Marketwatch provides is in relation to the company's stock price: "Historically, the overhang of the tragedy has been a major liability for Dow Chemical."
Cowell's New York Times account, however, explains what few others dare to mention:
In a separate BBC interview on a lunchtime radio news show after the hoax was uncovered, the same man said he represented an organization called "The Yes Men," whose Web site ((theyesmen.org) says it engages in "identity correction."
"Honest people impersonate big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them," the Web site says. "Targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else."
The man identified as Mr. Finisterra told BBC Radio that he was speaking "in a certain way" for Dow Chemical by setting out "the only reasonable thing for Dow Chemical to do."
Dow Chemical, needless to say, rushed to assure its shareholders that the real culprit in all of this is the BBC , and that it has no intention of assuming responsibility for what its subsidiary did in Bhopal.
There is one thing no news account I've seen happens to mention: the hoax comes at a time when the The Yes Men documentary is opening in many independent film theaters. Simultaneously hilarious and appalling, the film leaves no doubt about the basic cupidity of corporate America.
Roger Ebert calls "The Yes Men" a funny and --
disturbing documentary in which a couple of tricksters named Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum create a fictional WTO spokesman named Hank Hardy Unruh, and a fake WTO Web site where he can be contacted. Real-world groups contact Hank Hardy, and he flies out to their meetings to deliver a speech at which he summarizes the anti-WTO argument in terms the audience, incredibly, absorbs and passively accepts. Apparently (a) no one is really listening, (b) no one is thinking, or (c) the immorality of the WTO's exploitation of cheap foreign labor becomes invisible when it is described in purely economic terms. Answer: All three, which is why the United States and the other nations controlling the WTO can live with the inhuman cost of its policies, and why so many people simply don't understand what the demonstrators at world trade forums are so mad about.
Coincidentally, I happened to catch The Yes Men just this week. Despite the film's minor imperfections, by showing the stunning insensitivity of actual WTO experts to grotesque injustices so long as they are presented as ideas for enhancing corporate profits, The Yes Men offers one of the most convincing visual statements against the World Trade Organization I've ever seen. As for yesterday's prank, despite the risk of momentarily raising false hopes among the Bhopal victims, The Yes Men's latest hoax plainly was intended to focus attention on three central truths:
1. Union Carbide's CEO at the time of the Bhopal disaster, Warren Anderson, has been ducking guilt for culpable homicide by India's highest court;
2. In June 2004 the Bush administration refused India's request for Anderson's extradition; and
3. Justice still is being denied to the victims of Dow Chemical.
And that is why Dow Chemical is crying out for the media to make the BBC a "codefendant." As always, most of the media is only too happy to comply.
About mid-day Saturday, The Yes Men added to their web site. an explanation for the Dow Chemical hoax. Here is a snippet:
On November 29, an email comes in to DowEthics.com: BBC World Television wants a Dow representative to discuss the company's position on the 1984 Bhopal tragedy on this, its 20th anniversary.
Knowing Dow's history of gross negligence on this matter, we think it unlikely they will send a representative themselves—and if they do, he or she will likely only reiterate the old nonsense yet again, which will be depressing for all concerned. Yes, we'd better just do their PR for them.
* * *
What to do? We briefly consider embodying the psychopathic monster that is Dow by explaining in frank terms how they (a) don't give a rat's ass about the people of Bhopal and (b) wouldn't do anything to help them even if they did. Which they don't.
* * *
Instead... We will lay out a straightforward ethical path for Dow to follow to compensate the victims, remediate the site, and otherwise help make amends for the worst industrial disaster in history.
There are some risks to this approach. It could offer false hope to people who have endured 20 years of suffering because of Dow and Union Carbide. But what's an hour of false hope to 20 years of unrealized ones? If it works, this could focus a great deal of media attention on the issue, especially in the US, where the Bhopal anniversary has often gone completely unnoticed.
* * *
After all, the real hoax is Dow's claim that they can't do anything to help. They have conned the world into thinking they can't end the crisis, when in fact it would be quite simple. What would it cost to clean up the Bhopal plant site, which continues to poison the water people drink, causing an estimated one death per day?