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Child laborers, Macon, Georgia, 1909. (Lewis Hine via Library of Congress)

HBO is being sued for libel over a 2008 report that claimed British sporting goods company Mitre Sports International used child labor in India.

Mitre claims that the September 2008 report on “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” contains a “pack of lies” and asked Indian children to pose as child laborers working for Mitre.  Mitre filed the lawsuit back when the report aired but it is just now going to trial.

Mitre said HBO’s claims were a “hoax” and “hatchet job,” Reuters reported. “The company says it does not use child labor and firmly opposes it.”

“The evidence will show not only that this television show was false but it was told with HBO’s clear knowledge of its falsity,” Lloyd Constantine, Mitre’s lawyer said to Reuters. “Virtually everything in the show is false and HBO knew it at the time it was telecast.”

Mitre said it “suffered and continues to suffer substantial damage’ because of the report, pointing to Walmart pulling its products after the report, Reuters reported.

However, HBO stands by its report. An HBO spokesperson told iMediaEthics that it believes “this case is without merit.” HBO said:

“The main points of the HBO report are not debatable:  that child labor was a significant problem for the soccer ball manufacturing industry in India, that children were stitching soccer balls in India, and that some of those were Mitre balls.”

HBO said it contacted Mitre “nearly a month” before broadcast and specifically shown images of “children stitching Mitre soccer balls” but Mitre wouldn’t comment.

Further, “The accusation that HBO or its Indian stringers fabricated footage is false and is convincingly refuted by the outtakes, which show children stitching Mitre balls with great proficiency.  (Those outtakes are part of the court file.)”

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HBO added that its reporting was based on a trip to India, and “extensive research, speaking to numerous experts and reviewing thousands of pages of documents, many of which are part of the court record.”

A previous ruling by District Judge George Daniels said that Mitre isn’t a public figure so it “does not have to prove ‘actual malice,'” Reuters reported, but HBO only has to prove its report was “substantially true.”

“Mitre has the burden of proving that HBO said something about Mitre that was false, and that HBO was grossly irresponsible in its reporting. HBO’s position is that it was responsible and careful in its reporting, and that what it said about Mitre was true,” HBO lawyer Kevin Baine said to Reuters.

During opening statements, HBO’s lawyer defended HBO’s staff n the report including Bryant Gumbel who has a “long history of taking journalism to places it has never been” the Hollywood Reporter reported.

“Evidence will not support the notion that [HBO] relied on unreliable and seedy folks,” HBO lawyer Dane Butswinkas said, adding that the report was “responsible journalism in action.”

The Hollywood Reporter summarized the questions at hand:

“Is Mitre the dishonorable one for allegedly allowing child laborers to stitch its soccer balls for pennies or nothing? Or is HBO the shameless one for allegedly paying children to pretend to be stitching and standing idly by as sick children died nearly right before their cameras?

“Is Mitre the righteous multinational that led international efforts to virtually eradicate child labor even if a zero-tolerance policy couldn’t eliminate all instances of it? Or is HBO the hero in this story for taking two years to find distressing evidence that others wouldn’t and still won’t admit?”

 

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HBO on Trial for Defamation over 2008 Child Labor report

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