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Pranksters Sink the WTO

They started out as small-time pranksters. But when their fake WTO website began drawing invitations from around the world to speak on behalf of the World Trade Organization, they rose to the challenge.

CNBC TV, July 19, 2000

Our challenge is to get caught.

The opportunity came July 19, 2001, one day before 300,000 people were expected to show up in Genoa, Italy, to protest a meeting of the Group of 8, or G-8. In Paris, Andy—or rather, “Granwyth Hulatberi”—entered the French studios of CNBC-TV for the “European Marketwrap” program. Together with Barry Coates, then director of the World Development Movement, Andy as Hulatberi was to discuss the protest with CNBC-TV host Nigel Roberts.

NIGEL ROBERTS, HOST: In the last two years we have seen a tremendous upsurge of anti-capitalist protest. Why is it that there's suddenly been this upsurge?

BARRY COATES: Well, I think two major reasons.

One is that the rhetoric of what companies say they're doing vastly exceeds the reality. But secondly is that companies are seen to have undue influence on government policies. And many of the protests around these kinds of issues are arguing for change to the rules—to make them fairer to people rather than to create new rights for the big corporations.

This is still a question of national policy—but it's raised to a new level in the international arena through organizations like the WTO.

NIGEL ROBERTS: Well, Granwyth, you're with the WTO—perhaps that's a fair point, that more should be done by organizations like yourself to actually ameliorate those problems.

“GRANWYTH HULATBERI”: Well Nigel, the protesters are of course entirely correct, but we have to see what they're talking about in a relative way.

I mean you have a mass of protesters, an essentially ragtag group, who are trying to compete with a mass of knowledge that we at the WTO, and experts all over the world, have—knowledge that is based in books that have been written since the 1770s, in England, you know, in the 18th and 19th centuries, about this. These books allow us to be absolutely certain that free trade, although it has led to these problems that the protesters correctly point out, is certain to lead to a bettering of conditions for all consumers.

[Barry Coates' head is cocked to one side in disbelief.]

NIGEL ROBERTS: An interesting statistic is to compare the difference between the rich and poor. If you look at the annual global turnover of a firm like Goldman Sachs—$2.2 billion. Look at the GDP of Tanzania: $2.2 billion. The difference is, in Tanzania, it's shared out between 25 million people; at Goldman Sachs it used to be shared out between 161 partners. Now surely it's that kind of inequality...

“GRANWYTH HULATBERI”: Well, of course it is. But I think Barry, as well as all the other protesters, are simply too focused on reality, and on facts and figures. [Coates shakes his head, his mouth agape.] There's an enormous number of experts at all the greatest universities in the world, who have read all these books, who have read Adam Smith and everything since it to Milton Friedman, and these people have solid theoretical bases for knowing that things will lead to betterment.

BARRY COATES: Can I just say that these kinds of simplistic arguments are just too insulting for most people to believe. There are many, many thinkers from around the world—just not the ones employed by the WTO—that think that World Trade Organization policies are deeply damaging to the development prospects of the poorest countries.

“GRANWYTH HULATBERI”: [Hulatberi, scribbling notes, is caught by surprise.] Ah! Yes! Well, I wanted to speak to Granwyth's … sorry, to Barry's point about there being other thinkers.

Well, who actually has the power in the world, and therefore who is correct, in this kind of worldview? I think the answer is easy. And if you look at the views held by myself, my organization and many, many of the decision-makers in the world—the powerful people—they happen to coincide with what I'm explaining. And I think this is enough, in this sort of view.

Shut it down

We had been certain that the stream of rubbish we spouted would at a minimum prod some producer to pull the plug or broadcast a retraction. Instead, we had been congratulated and promised a copy of the broadcast for our archives. We needed another idea to convince others we were fakes.

The idea came when Andy showed the tape of the CNBC Marketwrap show to Bob, in preparation for another chance to represent the WTO—as “Kinnithrung Sprat,” speaking during a luncheon with certified practicing accountants in Sydney, Australia. As the tape wound to the end, Bob let out a low whistle. “Nice,” he said. “Very nice. But you didn't go far enough.”

“Hunh?” said Andy. “I sounded like a complete imbecile. How could I have gone farther?”

“You could have shut it down,” Bob replied.

“Hunh?” Andy repeated.

“Shut it down. Just matter-of-factly announce that you've done an internal review and, Oops! New data! It turns out that globalization really is hurting the little guy as the critics are saying, and you're sorry about that, so you're closing it down.”

The only problem was, asking us to do something systematically smart was like getting a hedgehog to mow the front lawn. We were used to being funny, abject, and meddlesome.

We spent the next few weeks trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, until we finally decided to search for outside help. Mike called up Andy in Paris.

“Hey, remember Barry Coates, that really smart guy you were on CNBC with? Did you ever tell him you weren't really with the WTO?”

“Uh, hmm, no, as a matter of fact.”

Mr. Coates laughed himself into stitches when he realized what we had done, and then generously helped straighten out our tangle of thoughts for the Sydney event.

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