It appears that HBO finds itself in the middle of some legal issues that don’t involve the Church of Scientology or even Robert Durst. Rather, this trial is over allegations that the network got a bit too creative in its reporting of the dreaded topic of child labor and exploitation. Now, a major manufacturer of soccer balls once in the crosshairs of one of their reports investigating child labor are claiming to have been defamed by the network. Millions of dollars could be at stake, as well as the reputation of the network.
The trial, which was the culmination of six years of efforts and millions of dollars in litigation costs, has escalated into an abrasive, overwhelming legal battle of attrition. Both the plaintiffs, Mitre Sports International and the defendants of HBO have drawn their respective lines in the sand. Mitre is taking the network to task over claims made in a segment of a September 16, 2008 episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel titled “Children of Industry.” The company claims that the piece is “a pack of lies” and contained a fabricated scenes allegedly utilizing “tricky editing” and bribery.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the main point of contention in the complaint is that the HBO report showed footage of young children in an Indian Mitre factory stitching soccer balls for wages that amounted to pennies, if anything at all. The company is vehemently denying this claim and further alleges that the footage in question was fabricated using Indian children who were paid and in some cases, forced by producers to promote the prevarication on camera.
The trial is being overseen by a jury; a fact that is a practical preemptive victory for the plaintiffs, after a U.S. District Judge was convinced that the Mitre company did not qualify as a public figure. This would immediately make HBO’s case infinitely more difficult. At that point, the Mitre only has to prove negligence and irresponsibility on HBO’s part rather than the more difficult argument of malicious intent. In essence, the trial became an uphill battle for HBO before it began.
In the opening statements on Monday, Mitre’s attorney, Llyod Constantine unleashed a rhetorical assault on HBO, reiterating the initial complaints, while further qualifying their claims by pointing to memos and letters from correspondents and producers involved with the show implicating their apparent lackadaisical approach to the veracity of the potentially damaging claims about the company. The legal eagle would even hit HBO below the pop-culture belt, comparing the “Children of Industry” piece to “a twisted spire on Game of Thrones.” He even threw in a quote from Shakespeare’s Othello, lamenting the sullying of the good name of his clients.
Constantine would even attempt to turn the table of righteous indignation right back on HBO with stories that imply the young supposed soccer-ball-stitchers in the allegedly fabricated footage were being made to concoct crocodile tears. However, the most powerful moment in his presentation, impugned the character of the network by showing outtake footage from the report that is said to depict an HBO cameraman filming without any desire to intervene as a boy roughly handles a sick infant, who is said to have died just a few weeks afterwards.
However, HBO’s lawyer, Dane Butswinkas exercised an option to instantly rebut Constantine’s claims, rather than wait for the next session. Knowing full well that the burden of defending against claims of negligence can be a perilously nebulous segment of the law, the defense has instead chosen to double-down on the initial report’s claims surrounding child labor. Butswinkas would cite the account of investigators sent down to the factory in Jalandhar, India, which corroborate the notion that child labor was, indeed, taking place.
While HBO’s CEO, Richard Plepler will not need to testify, others, including Charlotte Ponticelli, a former Deputy Secretary of International Labor Affairs and Kailash Satyarthi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner could be taking the stand at some point or another, due to their interviews in the piece in question. Regardless of which side one may be inclined to take in this mess of a trial, it is already clear that it’s exceptionally nasty.