A member of campaign group the Yes Men posed as a representative of the Dow Chemical company. He said that Dow claimed full responsibility for the 1984 disaster at a chemical factory in which thousands of Indians died and tens of thousands were disabled.
The Yes Men use slick websites as part of their campaigns and described the hoax as their most successful stunt yet.
They were contacted by a BBC producer who wanted to arrange an interview with Dow Chemicals on the 20th anniversary of the industrial accident. The producer appears to have used the dowethics.com site to arrange the interview; dowethics.com is not an official Dow website, but a spoof site set by the Yes Men to highlight the story of the Bhopal disaster.
Andy Bichlbaum, one half of the Yes Men team, arranged the interview at the BBC's Paris studio. Broadcast live on BBC World, Mr Bichlbaum posed as a Dow spokesperson under the name of 'Jude Finnisterra' and stated that Dow now accepted full responsibility for the accident. He pledged a $12 billion compensation package and said the company would also fully clean up the abandoned chemical plant site at Bhopal.
"It's the first time in history that a publicly owned company of anything near the size of Dow has performed an action that is significantly against its bottom line simply because it's the right thing to do," he said during the broadcast.
"Our shareholders may take a hit, but they will be ecstatic to be part of such a historic occasion."
The interview was repeated on BBC News 24 and BBC radio, and it was two hours before Dow alerted the BBC to the hoax and the interview was retracted.
Mr Bichlbaum told dotJournalism that the hoax had been a huge success because it got the Bhopal story back into the news.
"Even some excellent reporters didn't realise this was the anniversary," he said.
"Getting dozens of things in the media, when there probably would have been only a couple, was a success."
Mr Bichlbaum insisted that the BBC has done nothing wrong.
"We hope it hasn't damaged their reputation. It shouldn't. There was no net misinformation, because it was quickly disowned."
The BBC described the hoax as an 'elaborate deception' and immediately apologised to Dow Chemicals and to viewers. The corporation is reviewing its procedures on using web-based information, and is investigating the incident.
A BBC spokesperson said that the producer involved may have tried to contact the company through a part of the official Dow website that had been hacked. He would not comment on the dowethics.com site.
"It's too early to say how we might change our guidelines. We recognise that this is a serious incident, and we are in the business of recognising, supporting and executing best practice," he told dotJournalism.
"We want to learn lessons from this, rather than place blame."
Dow has not issued any notice of legal action against the Yes Men, and the experience of the group has been that institutions are reluctant to attract any more bad press by trying to silence activists.
The Yes Men have previously targeted the World Trade Organisation and also run popular satire site gwbush.com.
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