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HBO Is On Trial For An Alleged “Hoax” Report On Child Labor In India

The cable network is facing a multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit in federal court over a 2008 Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel story that claimed a soccer ball company used illegal child laborers in India.

Last updated on April 14, 2015, at 12:37 p.m. ET

Posted on April 14, 2015, at 12:37 p.m. ET

Host Bryant Gumbel speaks onstage during the Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel panel on Jan. 8, 2015, in Pasadena, California.
Frederick M. Brown / Getty

Host Bryant Gumbel speaks onstage during the Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel panel on Jan. 8, 2015, in Pasadena, California.

Six years after a lawsuit was filed against HBO alleging that the network “fabricated” a story on child labor in India that aired on the network’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, the multimillion-dollar defamation trial began Monday in federal court in New York City.

The plaintiff in the case is Mitre Sports International, a soccer ball and equipment manufacturer that claims HBO falsely depicted young Indian children hand-stitching Mitre balls for measly amounts of money to support their families in a segment titled “Children of Industry” that aired in September 2008.

The lawsuit claims that HBO hired the children to appear on camera and the report was “dramatized” and a “hoax.” Mitre claims it has interviewed the children featured on camera and they admitted that HBO producers paid them.

According to the lawsuit, Mitre is seeking between tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from HBO and its parent company, Time Warner Cable.

HBO plans to fight the case by showing the jury that it didn’t make any specific claims about Mitre’s operations in the documentary. According to court documents, HBO contends that “Children of Industry” did not defame Mitre with direct statements that the company employed child laborers in India.

Moreover, the cable network says the basis for the lawsuit is “materially false” because it has evidence that Mitre admittedly engages in child labor practices around the world. According to court documents, the network says “the gist of what HBO said about Mitre was ... substantially true,” citing media reports on the company and child labor. THR reported that during depositions Mitre admitted that it has “long been aware of child labor found in its supply chain.”

A key moment leading up to the trial came when the judge ruled that Mitre didn’t reach the level of prominence to be considered a “public figure,” and therefore the company will not have to prove “actual malice” in making its defamation case; instead, it needs only to show that HBO acted in a “grossly irresponsible” manner in presenting the story.

HBO CEO Richard Plepler
Fred Prouser / Reuters

HBO CEO Richard Plepler

The trial started Monday with Mitre’s lawyer Lloyd Constantine declaring that HBO’s "day of reckoning has come” during his two-hour opening statement.

Constantine condemned HBO for telling its viewers that the documentary was nonfiction when it was showing them a fictitious video more like the "twisted spires on Game of Thrones."

The prosecution played the jury of 10 women and two men the 22-minute “Children of Industry” segment, which is no longer live on HBO’s website, plus cut footage in court Monday. THR reported that some jurors were in tears at the conclusion of the videos:

Mitre's attorney also went for the emotional jugular by telling the jury how HBO researchers "pulled two girls out of playdates and made them cry" to film them. Not stopping there, Constantine also showed the jury a jaw-dropping six-minute video outtake where a cameraman films a young boy mishandling a sick infant with no intervention. A couple of weeks later, that child died, and while HBO's segment allegedly poured blame on Mitre for essentially letting this happen, Constantine's point seemed to be that HBO should look in the mirror.

With some of the jurors in tears after the video was shown, the attorney said, "I'm sorry, I apologize for having to show that."

During his rebuttal, HBO’s lawyer Dane Butswinkas told the jurors that despite what the prosecution claimed about the “Children of Industry” it would show evidence supporting its claim that Mitre knowingly uses child laborers. Butswinkas told the jurors that they would hear from outside investigators that the network hired. “You know what they found? Exactly what HBO found,” Butswinkas said.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge George Daniels answered a long-standing question in the case when he ruled that HBO CEO Richard Plepler would not be forced to testify live in court.

It is unclear whether Gumbel will testify in court or whether his sworn statement will be read to the jury. According to court documents, HBO listed Gumbel on its list of witnesses that will appear live, while Mitre listed the anchor as “by deposition” on its list.

Nevertheless, the trial will have its share of high-profile witnesses take the stand, as THR reports:

The judge will, however, permit Mitre to call to the witness stand Charlotte Ponticelli, who served as deputy under secretary for international labor affairs in the George W. Bush administration. She was interviewed for the HBO program, as was last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi. According to Constantine, both will testify how Real Sports producers "duped" them into implicating Mitre in the HBO report, how producers selectively used their interviews and how the experts were "shocked" when they saw the results.

The trial continues Tuesday and is expected to take up to four weeks. The jury's decision could have a profound effect on how the media covers child labor issues in the future.