For sale: the video archive Wal-Mart should have erased

Andrew Gumbel
Friday 11 April 2008 00:00
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The tape recordings that Richard Nixon made, almost obsessively, of everything that went on in the Oval Office helped bring down his presidency. And now a similarly thorough archive of video footage threatens to create a world of embarrassment – and legal liability – for Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer.

About 15,000 videotapes of Wal-Mart executives at work and at play over the past 30 years have suddenly become available to the public thanks to a series of blunders by the retail giant – which paid too little attention to the company it hired to make the tapes before abruptly terminating their relationship two years ago.

The company, Flagler Productions Inc, depended on Wal-Mart for 90 per cent of its revenue at the time the plug was pulled in 2006, and had just moved into a new 20,000 sq ft building in its home base of Lenexa, Kansas.

At first Flagler thought it was facing bankruptcy, but then realised the footage it was sitting on could be a goldmine. It offered the tapes to Wal-Mart, but the retail giant was willing to pay just $500,000 for the lot, and Flagler turned the offer down.

Now they are available – for a price – to researchers, labour rights campaigners and lawyers looking for dirt of all kinds. It's turning into quite a lucrative business.

A Kansas City lawyer representing a 12-year-old boy who suffered extensive burns when a gasoline can bought at Wal-Mart blew up in her face was astounded – and delighted – to find footage of employees making jokes about their gasoline cans blowing up at a Christmas party.

The lawyer, Diane Breneman, is hoping to present that footage in court to challenge Wal-Mart's claim that it couldn't have known the gasoline cans it sells "presented any reasonable foreseeable risk".

Another lawyer pursuing a multibillion-dollar sex discrimination lawsuit has found clips of Sam Walton, Wal-Mart's founder, and other top company officials lamenting the lack of women executives – sentiments that the lawyer believes bolster his argument that Wal-Mart knew of the problem but failed to act.

The archive also includes footage of Hillary Clinton, who served on Wal-Mart's board from 1986 to 1992, praising the company to the skies – a position she has since sought to mute.

"I'm so proud of this company and everything it represents," Mrs Clinton said at a store opening in Arkansas in 1991. "It makes me feel real good about what we've been able to do."

The archive came to light when Ms Breneman, the Kansas City lawyer in the gasoline can case, stumbled on an internet job posting from an ex-Flagler worker citing experience with a library of Wal-Mart videotapes. Not knowing what the tapes might contain, she subpoenaed the lot.

Flagler explained the library was far too big to bring to a law office, so Ms Breneman went to the small office that Flagler now operates from and started going through some of the footage. To her astonishment, much was of closed meetings and executives in unguarded moments. The tapes, she said, covered "everything anyone would want on Wal-Mart".

Astonishingly, Wal-Mart never drew up a written contract with Flagler to establish who owns the tapes.

Flagler is now cashing in, charging $250 a time for video research, and there are plenty of takers.

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