60 Minutes Takes on ‘Conflict Diamonds’

The industry’s image took another beating after 60 Minutes took on De Beers and the “conflict diamond” issue in February.

Industry executives who worked with the show’s producers had hoped the story wouldn’t be as negative as last year’s PrimeTime Live episode on “conflict” gems, noting that producers attended a mine opening in Botswana and interviewed De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer. But the show’s bent was decidedly critical—it compared diamonds to drugs and equated buying from De Beers with laundering.

The story’s first half covered De Beers’ history of managing prices, ensuring media coverage for diamonds, and strong-arming Zaire when it bolted the cartel in the 1980s. It mentioned De Beers’ 1995 indictment for price fixing but left the impression it was for gem, rather than industrial, diamonds. It showed a headline that originally read, “GE, De Beers Indicted on Price Fixing,” but removed the “GE,” leaving the impression that only De Beers was involved.

After commenting that De Beers is “illegal” in the U.S.—its largest market—Harvard law professor Deborah Spar added: “I can’t think of any other commodity for which that’s true—except maybe for drugs.” After showing dealer William Goldberg at a sight, reporter Bob Simon added: “[Goldberg] has done nothing illegal. But he has in effect laundered the diamonds of De Beers.”

The section on “conflict diamonds” was even more damning. There were gruesome glimpses inside a Sierra Leone amputee camp and talk of the role diamonds have played in fueling wars in Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Simon said that

De Beers now warrants that its diamonds are “conflict-free” but added that the company hadn’t accounted for the “conflict” stones left in its safes. When Oppenheimer noted that only 4% of the world’s diamonds was involved, Simon immediately countered, “Global Witness says the amount of ‘conflict diamonds’ on the worldwide market is considerably higher than 4%.” (The group’s latest figure is 7%.) And after relaying Oppenheimer’s assertion that diamonds help African economies, Global Witness’s Chairman Gooch said, “I’d challenge anyone who said that to you to go into an amputee camp in Sierra Leone and say that to the victims of the amputee camp.”

At press time, De Beers didn’t have a public comment to make about the broadcast, but insiders were considering making a formal complaint to CBS.

Goldberg was equally unhappy. He says the 60 Minutes producers told him they were doing a fair piece that was not about “conflict diamonds.” “I’m absolutely appalled at the distorted, devious, and misleading manner in which this program was presented,” he says. “They never mentioned the great joy people get in receiving beautiful jewelry. It’s a disgrace.”

Congressional sponsors of the Clean Diamond Act (see following story) mentioned the story in a “Dear Colleague” letter to other members of Congress. “On February 18, the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes aired a program exposing the link between De Beers’ glittering diamonds and bloody African wars,” says the letter, co-signed by Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio), Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), and Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.). “Footage of the thousands of civilian victims of one of these wars, in Sierra Leone, rekindled our determination to do something to end these atrocities.”