Right Turn

Monday, December 27, 2010

HSBC's shift on its Iran ad

The international bank HSBC says it is pulling an ad that juxtaposes a plug for the bank's ability to find "potential in unexpected places" with a factoid about Iran: "Only 4% of American films are made by women. In Iran it's 25%."

The implication that Iranian women - who are tortured, imprisoned and even murdered for exercising rights of free speech - are better situated than their American counterparts is simply preposterous. In response to my inquiry, HSBC spokesman Robert Sherman denied that the ad suggested the bank was exploring investment opportunities in Iran.

As for the comparison of female filmmakers in Iran and the United States, Sherman said: "HSBC offers no opinion on the lives of artists in any country. This is not a topic that's germane to an ad campaign for a global bank. The ad needs to be considered in the context of our 'Unlocking the World's Potential' campaign. As with our prior 'Values' campaign, this campaign intentionally makes no judgment. The intent is only to emphasize surprising facts based on geographic diversity, as a way to facilitate a conversation about the world's potential. Other surprising facts featured in this campaign: Holland earns more exporting soy than Japan; USA has more Spanish language newspaper readers than Latin America."

A "surprising fact" not in the ad but reported by The Post last week: "Prominent Iranian director Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films, writing scripts, giving interviews and traveling abroad for the coming 20 years, his lawyer said Tuesday."

The State Department's human rights report on Iran published in March noted that: "[T]he government effectively censored domestic filmmaking. Producers were required to submit scripts and film proposals to government officials in advance of funding approval . . . and some domestic directors were blacklisted."

A day after I contacted HSBC, Sherman followed up with an e-mail saying: "The ad was meant to encourage debate and discussion, and we certainly did not intend to cause offense. Subsequent to hearing some recent concerns, we are removing the ad from our global campaign."

As to HSBC's Iran operations, the bank contends: "HSBC's Iran policy remains the same: no new deals, no activity not permitted under existing sanctions."

It is not clear precisely what business HSBC continues to conduct in Iran. Securities and Exchange Commission filings show that the bank maintains an office there. HSBC scaled back some of its business there in 2007, in response to growing concern about Iran's activities. Of late, HSBC's practices have drawn attention from regulators. The bank is being probed by the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office. It has hired Deloitte to examine transactions related to a money-laundering investigation. And the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency issued a "cease and desist" order to HSBC's North American unit in October, having found that there was "significant potential" the bank was conducting transactions on behalf of sanctioned entities. Two members of Congress have written to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke urging stronger controls on bank activity in Iran, citing HSBC as an example.

When Stuart Levey, the Treasury undersecretary in charge of financial sanctions, testified before the House Foreign Affairs committee this month, he detailed laborious efforts to expose Iranian banks and companies involved in illicit activities and to persuade banks in the United States and Europe to cease activities that might facilitate Iran's nuclear or terrorist activities. Levey explained in part: "The vast body of public information demonstrating the scope of Iran's illicit conduct and deceptive practices - practices that have facilitated its proliferation activities - makes it nearly impossible for financial institutions and governments to assure themselves that transactions with Iran could not contribute to proliferation-sensitive activity."

HSBC says it doesn't make "value judgments." But by continuing to do business with a murderous regime, the bank shows its corporate values.


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