Another day, another great internet hoax story. Stuart Mackenzie reports on how Australia’s peak accounting body got cleaned up.

How could it happen? How could they have misled us? How could we have missed what was really going on?

Perhaps seeking some relief from the killing fields of recent corporate failures, last month a group of Certified Practising Accountants settled down in Sydney to a lunchtime seminar on international trade with the World Trade Organisation’s Kinnithrung Sprat.

Sprat had some dramatic news to announce the WTO’s planned dissolution in September and its reconstitution as a new Trade Regulation Organisation, dedicated to assisting the world’s poor instead of the rich.

“The new organisation will have as its basis the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with the aim of ensuring the TRO will have human rather than business interests as its bottom line,” Sprat was quoted as saying.

After the initial shock, some of the accountants expressed enthusiasm for the change, and offered thoughtful suggestions for how world trade could benefit the poor moving the TRO headquarters from Switzerland to a Third World country, for example.

“I’m as right-wing as the next fellow,” said one of the CPAs, “but it’s time we gave something back to the countries we’ve been doing so well from.”

Realising the news value, CPA Australia issued a media release through Australian Associated Press, under the name of NSW communications manager Barbara McGee, announcing the WTO’s restructure.

Meanwhile, Canadian MP John Duncan had seen a similar media release on a website and during question time asked the government what impact this would have on current trade negotiations.

A confused Pat O’Brien, parliamentary secretary to the trade minister, responded that Canada would continue to press its cases before the WTO.

Unfortunately, for both bean-counters and pollies, Kinnithrung Sprat was not who he purported to be, but was impersonator Andy Bichelbaum from an anti-globalisation group called the Yes Men.

The Yes Men’s hoaxes involve posing as WTO employees and presenting information to business meetings around the world that is contrary to the aims of the real World Trade Organisation.

Bichelbaum recently told the ABC’s Media Report that people listening to his presentations think that it’s really the WTO speaking to them.

“This caught us by surprise the first time when we responded to an invitation to go and speak to a conference of lawyers specialising in international trade in Salzburg. We expected them to react to the insane talk that we’d prepared with horror, and either drum us out of town, put us in jail, at least react. And when they didn’t and when they didn’t even notice that there was something fishy going on, we were rather taken aback.”

After one hoax in Finland, a participant said, “But they were so polite and they had such a large Powerpoint presentation, how could they possibly be hoaxers?”

“We’ve already demonstrated that audiences of experts will accept anything whatsoever so long as it comes from the mouth of the WTO,” said Mike Bonanno, another Yes Man who helped to prepare the Sydney lecture.

Bonanno says his group is trying to balance the free trade debate.

“We simply wanted to present the idea that it is possible and attainable to create a trading system that is first and foremost concerned with the welfare of people, rather than the current system in which profits are the only goal,” he told AAP recently.

So how does it work?

The Yes Men own the Internet URL which impersonates the WTO’s official site.

Business organisations seeking a speaker from the WTO contact the Yes Men through the site, often enquiring about the availability of Mike Moore, the WTO’s Director-General. The Yes Men write back saying Moore is unavailable and offering an alternative expert speaker, which is usually accepted and away they go.

Subscribers can find more information about the WTO dissolution hoax at this web site

including the media release from CPA Australia which apparently ran on their website for several days before they realised they’d been had.

You can fool some of the people

Stuart Mackenzie can be reached at [email protected]