We were standing in a gilded conference hall. I was casually pointing a microphone at the representative of a well-known British cotton-trading company while Scott, my cameraman, was recording the interview into his pint-sized camcorder.
The room was bustling with people who might have been making deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, some were just chatting, others were stuffing themselves with the lavish spread on the buffet tables.
Nobody was too worried about our presence, least of all the trader we were talking to. After all, we were just a couple of trade magazine hacks making ‘web content’for a little-known industry mag’s website.
That’s what we told the Uzbek authorities when we asked for visas and tickets to their annual cotton fair. And it was the story we stuck to when we interviewed a number of Western cotton traders who help finance Uzbekistan’s authoritarian regime by buying almost a million tonnes of its ill-gotten cotton every year.
Scott Corben and I had slipped into Uzbekistan for the BBC‘s Newsnight and Insight News TV, in order to expose the government’s use of forced child labour in the cotton industry.
We wanted to show how Western consumers and companies were partly to blame. But the most incredible thing about the whole story was that everybody we talked to in Uzbekistan fell for the ruse.
Trader after trader told us on camera exactly how much cotton they bought from the government, which controls all sales of the commodity.
Uzbekistan is one of the most difficult places for the media to operate in within the former Soviet Union. Most foreign media have been barred from reporting in the country ever since the Andijan massacre in 2005, when many local journalists ended up in prison for their coverage. The BBC had to shut down its Tashkent office, so announcing our true intentions wasn’t going to be an option.
Setting the shoot up right from London was crucial. Our story had to check out for us to be safe in Uzbekistan, so I secured a cover letter from the editor of a bona fide cotton-trade magazine before asking the conference organisers to give us visa support.
The alias was useful in London for weeks of research to link cotton exported from Uzbekistan to Bangladesh clothing manufacturers and eventually UK high street retailers like Matalan, Arcadia Group and ASDA.
Once we got away from the conference centre and the capital we filmed dozens of children hard at work in the cotton fields. Evidently the precautions we were taking weren’t enough – we were caught filming police marshaling hundreds of children out of school and on to buses bound for the cotton fields.
A few hours later in the police station we were told that two of the tapes, both critical to the investigation, would be confiscated.
Luckily, we were able to put new stickers on fresh tapes while a police officer left the room to use the toilet. We got away with passing off a couple of blanks as the genuine article.