HBO attorneys on Thursday mounted a vigorous defense of its reporting on Mitre Sports International’s involvement with child labor in India as closing arguments began in the defamation case sparked by a 2008 segment of “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel.”
Mitre Sports, the U.K.-based equipment and apparel giant, accuses HBO of fabricating footage for the “Real Sports” segment that showed children stitching Mitre-branded soccer balls. HBO counters that Mitre coerced some of the adults and children featured in the “Children of Industry” report to lie in affidavits claiming that they were given the stitching equipment and instructions by members of the TV crew who filmed the segment.
The jury trial has unfolded over the past four weeks in federal court in Manhattan before Judge George Daniels. It has included testimony from top Mitre execs, as well as “Real Sports” reporter Bernie Goldberg, producer Joe Perskie and host Bryant Gumbel.
On Thursday, HBO attorney Dane Butswinkas told the jury that Mitre executives practiced “willfull blindness” to evidence that children under age 14 had been hired by outside contractors to stitch their soccer balls in the Jalandhar region of India. Butswinkas asserted that Mitre execs turned “two blind eyes” to the situation in order to protect the company’s distribution relationships in the U.S., where some retailers ban the sale of equipment using child labor.
Butswinkas walked the jury through pages of deposition testimony from Mitre execs and notes by producers and reporters who worked on the “Children of Industry” segment documenting their field reports. It all adds up to “a mountain of evidence that children were stitching Mitre soccer balls in Jalandhar,” he said.
He showed extended footage of the “Real Sports” crew’s initial visits and interviews with children and their families. With the videos depicting the kids as being facile with the stitching process, Butswinkas repeatedly asked the jury: “Do these kids look like they learned this five minutes ago?”
Butswinkas asserted that the kids and their families were pressured to change their stories about stitching because of pressure from Sports Goods Foundation of India, a manufacturing industry org that is designed to guard against child labor violations. Butswinkas asserted that reps from SGFI threatened the families with losing their livelihood and worse if they didn’t sign affidavits and offer deposition statements denying the children’s involvement. He called it a “climate of fear” created by SGFI, and he noted that the affidavits were written in English and presented to people who acknowledged that they cannot read.
Judge Daniels made it clear at the start of the closing arguments that the case hinges on the question of whether HBO was “grossly irresponsible” in airing the segment. “The decision to air it is the conduct at issue, not what people did in the field,” he told jurors.
To that end, Butswinkas noted that HBO in its effort to give Mitre a fair chance to respond, it eliminated footage of two girls stitching balls that Mitre objected to in advance of the broadcast, after producers sent still pictures to the company of some footage. “Is that the actions of grossly irresponsible journalism, or is that going the extra mile,” Butswinkas said.
Mitre attorneys were expected to begin their closing summation Thursday afternoon.
More to come….