McLibel

| September 21, 2004

Who were the first people to take on the corporations and win both the legal and the media battle? Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me, the career of Michael Moore can all be seen to be directly indebted to the McLibel two, Helen Steel and Dave Morris. In 1990 McDonald’s issued 5 writs for libel to activists in the London Greenpeace group for their distribution of the leaflet ‘What’s wrong with McDonald’s?’ This leaflet claimed, amongst other things, that McDonald’s targeted children in their advertising, served unhealthy food and destroyed the environment. Not a particularly controversial view now, but McDonald’s had spent many years suing anyone who suggested such things. As McLibel, a documentary about the case, suggests, this was essentially using the law to bully people. No-one had the resources or the time to fight the cases, particularly in the UK where the burden of proof is on the defendant. No-one, that is, until Steel and Morris told their legal advisers (they were given 2 hours legal aid for a case that eventually became the longest trial in British legal history) that they would not be cowed and they would be defending themselves.
This gripping documentary follows the trial and intelligently suggests that the case was not simply about corporations or problems with British law. The film incorporates discussions of so many issues, and the case itself has evolved in so many directions, that you leave with a sense of how there remains so much wrong and so much work to do; work, however, that can be successful.
It isn’t going too far to say that without the case much of the local, activist work we take for granted (particularly in the UK) would be more muted. The corporation was badly injured in the case, both from a legal point of view (they did not win the entire case) but mostly from a PR standpoint. McDonald’s was presented in the press as overreacting, paranoid, secretive. The opportunity to take on huge corporations and possibly win was suddenly there (in some ways Moore’s Michael and Me had a similar effect). McLibel demonstrates that the rampant paranoia shown in Fahrenheit 911 abounded far before 2001. In a hilarious sequence we are introduced to the various private investigators that McDonald’s hired to infiltrate the North London environmental campaign group Steel and Morris were members of. What this sequence demonstrates neatly is the overkill that was to lose McDonald’s the PR war. Who sends investigators to find out the addresses of a small environmental group in an obscure part of London? Just how paranoid is this company?
The documentary includes reconstructions of the trial directed by Ken Loach (British trials cannot be filmed). These reconstructions, clunky as the technique is, reveal the obsessive attention to minutiae required to fight a libel action in the UK. They also demonstrate that when the key McDonald’s witnesses were cross-examined their case simply disintegrated. The simple, bloodyminded logic that Steel and Morris pursue is that if they keep on doggedly asking the questions McDonald’s will eventually have to tell the truth. They simply could not justify the publicity material claiming the food was nutritious; this point is still moot, given the media furore surrounding Super Size Me. In many cases this results in bald, hilarious statements from the executives. They were so shaken by this that they attempted to settle out of court, as long as the defendants apologised. They refused, and the case dragged on.
Steel and Morris were ruled to be correct in many aspects of their case, and they have taken the case to the European court at this time to suggest that the financial inequalities of the situation essentially meant that the trial was unfair. The British verdict was devastating for McDonald’s. The judge upheld claims that they ‘exploit children’ with their advertising, that their advertising was ‘misleading’, that they were ‘culpably responsible’ for cruelty to animals, were ‘antipathetic’ to unionisation and they pay their staff low wages. The two defendants have not paid any damages, and McDonald’s have neglected to pursue them.
The film is being reissued at chosen locations to coincide with the run of Super Size Me. For an extensive website on the film including streaming links, go to: http://www.spannerfilms.net/?lid=161
For information on McLibel go to http://www.mcspotlight.org

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