(Reuters) - A federal jury in Manhattan heard charges about fiction masquerading as fact on Monday, at the opening of a trial in which HBO faces libel claims over a report on child labor in India.
The trial is the culmination of years of litigation over the report on “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” which first aired in September 2008.
The report accused British sporting goods company Mitre Sports International of turning a blind eye to the use by contractors or subcontractors of underaged workers for the production of Mitre-branded soccer balls in India.
Mitre denies the charges and says it opposes child labor.
In his opening statements Lloyd Constantine, a lawyer for Mitre, said the evidence would show that children depicted in the report as stitching Mitre soccer balls for 5 cents per hour or less were induced to pretend on camera that they were child laborers.
“These poor kids are just characters,” Constantine said, after jurors watched the 22-minute report.
Gumbel’s Real Sports program “is supposed to report real news, not fiction,” Constantine told the jury, as he went over segments of the report that he described as “concocted” or “flat-out lies.”
“These scenes were all staged and HBO is very good at that. They make good movies,” Constantine said.
Mitre, which is owned by the London-based Pentland Group, 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 labor.
Home Box Office Inc says it stands by the report, alternately titled “Childhood Lost” and “Children of Industry.” Ray Stallone, a spokesman for the Time Warner Inc subsidiary, has repeatedly dismissed the libel case as “without merit” and said none of the report’s video footage was fabricated.
The premium channel is better known for entertainment than news. But HBO also has a reputation for producing top-notch news documentaries and that reputation could take a hit if it is found guilty of “staging” any part of a news report.
Lawyers have 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.”
U.S. District Judge George Daniels said during jury selection early on Monday that the trial was expected to take up to four weeks.
The case is Mitre Sports International Limited v. Home Box Office Inc in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 08-09117.
Editing by Dan Grebler, Andrew Hay and Lisa Shumaker