Index on Censorship and English PEN today have expressed dismay that the BBC has conceded the libel action brought by toxic waste shippers Trafigura in the High Court. We believe this is a case of such high public interest that it was incumbent upon a public sector broadcaster like the BBC to have held their ground in order to test in a Court of law the truth of the BBC’s report or determine whether a vindication of Trafigura was deserved.
The case was brought by Trafigura after the BBC claimed in its Newsnight programme of 13 May 2009 that Trafigura had caused deaths by being involved in the dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur Prof Okechukwu Ibeanu concluded in a report on 3 September 2009 that:
“On the basis of the above considerations and taking into account the immediate impact on public health and the proximity of some of the dumping sites to areas where affected populations reside, the Special Rapporteur considers that there seems to be strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the Probo Koala.”
Trafigura has paid out $200 million to the government of the Ivory Coast, and in London settled for £30 million a joint action made by 31,000 Ivorians.
BBut the BBC has now apparently conceded that the toxic waste dumped by the Probo Koala did not cause deaths, serious or long-term injuries and retracted their Newsnight piece in full and removed all reports from their web site.
English PEN and Index on Censorship believe that costs were a major factor behind the BBC’s decision. According to a leading media lawyer, Mark Stephens of FSI, the cost of such a case would have been in excess of £3 million. In its statement the BBC said:
“The BBC withdraws the allegation that deaths, miscarriages or serious or long-term injuries were caused by the waste and apologises to Trafigura for having claimed otherwise.”
John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship said:
“Sadly, the BBC has once again buckled in the face of authority or wealthy corporate interests. It has cut a secret deal. This is a black day for British journalism and once more strengthens our resolve to reform our unjust libel laws.”
Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, said:
“Forced to choose between a responsible broadcaster and an oil company which shipped hundreds of tons of toxic waste to a developing country, English libel law has once again allowed the wrong side to claim victory. The law is an ass and needs urgent reform.”