(See also this more complete account, complete with a story of fear and trembling and censorship.)
On November 29, 2004, 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 and certainly won't help get press for the issue in the US. Yes, we'd better just do their PR for them.
Since we can't possibly afford to go to London with our pathetic American dollars, we ask to be booked in a studio in Paris, where Andy is living. No problem. Mr. Jude (patron saint of the impossible) Finisterra (earth's end) becomes Dow's official spokesperson.
What to do with the five or so minutes he'll be allotted? We 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. This would be familiar territory for Andy: he did something similar representing the WTO on CNBC's Marketwrap. But no one seemed to notice it had happened, and no press resulted. The idea this time being to get coverage of the anniversary in the US—where most people don't even know what Bhopal was—we rule out this angle.
Instead we settle on the impossible, Jude announcing a radical new direction for the company, one in which Dow takes full responsibility for the disaster. We will lay out a straightforward ethical path for Dow to follow to compensate the victims, clean up the plant site, and otherwise help make amends for the worst industrial disaster in history. It will be impossible for Dow not to react in some way, which should generate tons of press.
There are some risks to this approach. It could offer false hope—or rather, false certainty—to people who have suffered 20 years of false hopes that Dow and Union Carbide would do the right thing. But all hopes are false until they're realized, and 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. Who knows—it could even somehow force Dow's hand.
After all, the real hoax here 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?
We decide to show how another world is possible, and to direct any questions about false hopes for justice in Bhopal directly to Dow. (See also our FAQ.)
Another problem we anticipate is that this could result in some backlash for the BBC. This is bothersome, because they have covered Bhopal very well, infinitely better than what we're used to in the US. We would much rather hoax CBS, ABC, NBC, or Fox, but none of those could give that rat's ass about Bhopal, and so none of those has approached us.
In any case, it didn't seem to hurt CNBC when "Granwyth Hulatberi" appeared as WTO spokesperson. It was a simple mistake, and one that anyone could make. Intelligent people will not question the excellence of BBC's overall coverage because of an unavoidable error, especially if it is caught quickly and provides for some interesting discussion that wouldn't have happened otherwise.
On the day of the interview, we wake up early and put on our thrift-store suits. Andy nervously runs through his answers once more while Mike fumbles with cameras. A crowded metro ride later, we arrive at the BBC's Paris studio. "Jude" is seated in front of a green screen and waits.
At 9am GMT, Dow's spokesperson appears live on the BBC World Service in front of the Eiffel Tower. He is ecstatic to make the announcement: Dow will accept full responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, and has a $12 billion dollar plan to compensate the victims and remediate the site. (Dow will raise the $12 billion by liquidating Union Carbide, which cost them that much to acquire.) Also, to provide a sense of closure to the victims, Dow will push for the extradition of Warren Anderson, former Union Carbide CEO, to India, which he fled following his arrest 20 years ago on multiple homicide charges. (Watch the broadcast.)
When it's over, the studio technician is happy about what she has heard. "What a nice thing to announce," she says.
"I wouldn't work for Dow if I didn't believe in it," replies Andy matter-of-factly.
We expect the story to be retracted immediately, but Dow takes two hours to notice that alas and alack, it's done the right thing. The full interview therefore runs twice, and for two hours the story is the top item on news.google.com. CNN reports a Dow stock loss of 2 billion dollars on the German exchange. After Dow notes emphatically that it is not in fact going to do right by those non-shareholders in Bhopal, the retraction remains the top Google story for the rest of the day.
Back at Andy's apartment, we help Dow express itself more fully by mailing out a more formal retraction: "Dow will NOT commit ANY funds to compensate and treat 120,000 Bhopal residents who require lifelong care.... Dow will NOT remediate (clean up) the Bhopal plant site.... Dow's sole and unique responsibility is to its shareholders, and Dow CANNOT do anything that goes against its bottom line unless forced to by law." For a while, this—as reprinted in Men's News Daily, a reactionary drivel bucket that doesn't realize our Dow release is fake, and doesn't mind what it says—becomes the top story on news.google.com.
"Whatever be the circumstances under which the news was aired, we will get $12 billion from Dow sooner than later," one Bhopali activist is quoted as saying. But the "false hope" question does come up in some articles, especially in the UK. Much as we try to convince ourselves it was worth it, we cannot get rid of the nagging doubt. Did we deeply upset many Bhopalis? If so, we want to apologize. We were trying to show that another world is possible....
We're also bothered that the BBC has taken the fall, and that this has somehow called the BBC's credibility into question. It shouldn't. The BBC, as soon as Dow finally noticed that "Jude Finisterra" wasn't theirs, promptly and prominently retracted the story. There was no net misinformation. In fact there was significantly more information as a result, since more people knew about Bhopal and Dow, especially in the US.
The real credibility problem is when networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox, or papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post (and most of the rest), systematically and for months on end unquestioningly mouth the assertions of a lying, scheming crook of a president—about WMDs, for example. It is thanks to these well-amplified lies that the crook in question was able to wage a war with 100,000 civilian casualties on a country that very clearly posed zero threat. At least the Times and the Post issued quiet, late apologies and mea culpas. Not enough: for such a monumental failure of journalism, the American media should undergo a thorough examination and restructuring. At the very least, their owners and editors should have been required to explain to a court why big corporations should be allowed to own so much noise. Which, as the episode proves, they shouldn't be.
Throughout the day, we are deluged with email, almost all of it positive. Later, the BBC calls again: they want us back at the studio. Yeah, right! No, really—they want us on for another show, to talk about what has happened. Against our better judgment we go—and arrive to find four smiling staffers. "Where are the cops?" Andy asks, and the staffers actually laugh.
Another interview on Channel 4 (smaller download here), and the day is finally over. Now all we can do is wait to see how it all pans out. Will our fondest hopes be realized—will Dow be forced to concede? Or will the people of Bhopal have to wait twenty more years?
All we know if that at least for today, this 20th anniversary of the catastrophe, news about Bhopal and Dow is front and center in the US news. And on this most somber of days, Dow has been forced to show, by its curt refusal to do anything, just what "corporate social responsibility" really means.
Visit Bhopal.net to help keep pressure on Dow, or Bhopal.org to help provide much-needed medical help to the people of Bhopal.