Libel Case Against HBO Will Go to a Federal Jury
MANHATTAN (CN) - Jurors must decide the truth behind an HBO documentary's assertions that a soccer-ball manufacturer used child labor in India, a federal judge ruled.
A Sept. 16, 2008, episode of "Real Sports With Bryan Gumbel" titled "Children of Industry" traveled to the slums of Jalandhar, India, where correspondent Bernard Goldberg reported that children as young as 6 had been forced to stitch soccer balls for the U.K.-based company Mitre.
"They have no childhood," children's rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi told HBO. "They have no freedom."
U.S. District Judge George Daniels last week outlined the cracks that have surfaced in the story six years after since HBO's reporters, researcher and producer participated in discovery in the case.
Harinder Singh, a Hindi news channel bureau chief who worked on the HBO segment as a stringer, testified that scenes of children stitching soccer balls were "fabricated" or "dramatized."
Mitre's attorney Lloyd Constantine of the firm Constantine Cannon told Courthouse News in a phone interview that researching the case involved "unprecedented" efforts to export U.S. discovery practices to India.
He said that his legal team took videographers and stenographers on a six-week evidence hunt, involving 29 depositions in coordination with India's judiciary, which did not previously have the tools for live translation.
The HBO broadcast included one 12-year-old orphan who said she worked to support her aging grandparents. A 10-year-old said his parents allegedly "sold his freedom" to a soccer-ball company "for less than $100."
Mitre lodged its federal defamation lawsuit in New York after the episode aired, claiming that HBO's condemnations over "debt bondage," "slavery," "forced labor," and "indentured servitude" were a "hoax."
Researcher Veena Sharma, who had told associate producer Gul-e-Zehra Mamdani that she witnessed children stitching balls, acknowledged during cross-examination that she never observed this with anyone under the age of 14.
Before the segment aired, Goldberg wrote to another producer: "I think this is unfair to Walmart and Mitre," according to the May 16 opinion.
Goldberg insisted that HBO addressed his concerns before the segment aired.
"Children identified as stitchers of Mitre soccer balls gave unrebutted testimony that they were induced to pretend to stitch Mitre balls on-camera and that those scenes were staged," the 24-page opinion states. "There is also unrebutted testimony that the balls shown being stitched had already been stitched prior to being given to the children in the show."
While Mitre had hoped such evidence would win them summary judgment, Daniels said a jury would have to hear HBO's defense that the "gist or thrust of the segment as it pertains to Mitre - that children in India are involved in the manufacture of soccer balls, including Mitre-branded balls - is substantially true."
HBO also noted that Goldberg expresses doubt toward the end of the segment that Mitre knew about the alleged child-labor practices.
"Are we supposed to believe that Mitre, for instance, which is just one of the many companies that, that are involved in this... is going to know what's happening on a side street in Jalandhar, India?" Goldberg asked. "lt's hard. It's very hard."
Since the company has not sponsored any U.S.-based sports teams for more than a decade, Mitre does not qualify as a "public figure," and it will not need to prove at trial that HBO acted with "actual malice," the judge ruled.
Instead, Mitre will need to show that HBO had been "grossly irresponsible" in airing the segment.
Although he said that ruling "simplifies our case significantly," Mitre attorney Constantine said his team will prove "that the show was done with reckless disregard for the truth and malice."
The jury must weigh "whether and the circumstances under which children in India stitch soccer balls for Mitre, whether anyone working on the segment saw any children in India stitching Mitre soccer balls, what HBO knew about the circumstances (if any) under which children in India stitch Mitre soccer balls, and what information HBO decided to include in the segment in light of these facts," according to the opinion (parentheses in original).
HBO's attorneys were not immediately available for comment.