Jury will get underway in New York on Monday in a trial in which US TV giant HBO is facing libel action over a news report which claimed that British sporting goods company Mitre was using child labourers in India.
The trial in federal court in Manhattan is the culmination of years of litigation over the report on “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” which first aired in September 2008.
Mitre Sports, established in 1817, is the world’s oldest manufacturer of soccer balls.
The company says it does not use child labour and firmly opposes it.
It has said some children depicted in the HBO report as stitching Mitre soccer balls in India for five cents per hour or less were induced to pretend on camera that they were child labourers.
Some children shown in the report were also described as victims of debt bondage and child slave labour.
Mitre has called the report a “hoax” and a “hatchet job,” aimed at tarnishing the reputation of a company at the forefront of global efforts to eradicate child labour.
“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, an attorney representing Mitre, told Reuters.
“Virtually everything in the show is false and HBO knew it at the time it was telecast.”
HBO says it stands by the report, alternately titled “Childhood Lost” and “Children of Industry.”
The company has dismissed the libel case as “without merit”.
The premium channel is better known for shows such as ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Sopranos’ than news.
However, the company also has a reputation for producing top-notch documentaries and that reputation could take a hit if it is found guilty of “staging” any part of a news report.
Constantine declined to detail the damages Mitre is seeking. But the company’s lawsuit, filed on Oct, 23, 2008, said the amount would total “tens of millions of dollars.”
“Mitre has suffered and continues to suffer substantial damage to its name, mark, business and reputation,” the complaint said.
It cited a decision by Wal-Mart Stores to remove all Mitre Cobra soccer balls from its shelves after the report aired as one example of that damage.
District Judge George Daniels, in a written opinion clearing the way for the trial to proceed last year, made the point that “substantial truth suffices to defeat a charge of libel” under New York law.
That principle is likely to be a pillar of HBO’s defence in the case, since it has argued in court papers that its report was “substantially true.”
Child labour is pervasive in India and HBO contends that children in the country are involved in the manufacture of soccer balls, including Mitre-branded products.
But Daniels also gave Mitre an apparent advantage in the case by ruling – in a move protested by leading media organizations, including Reuters – that Mitre was hardly a household name and cannot be considered a “public figure.”
The protest centred on concerns about press freedom and the protections traditionally awarded U.S. journalists in reporting about public officials and public figures.
The ruling means that Mitre does not have to prove “actual malice” on the part of HBO, a tough standard in libel cases.
Instead, Mitre only needs to convince the jury that HBO was grossly irresponsible in matters such as fact-checking and editing.