SQUALL McLibel Special: Mammon vs Free Speech
The End Of An Era Of Capitulation
For years, successive submissions in the face of financial might had induced a cold climate of fear amongst critics of the McDonald’s Corporation. Now, however, the tenacity of the two 'dominoes' who refuse to topple is turning corporate libel on its head and rescuing free speech from its coffin.
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, p.54
"The McLibel two would have the right to speak their opinion in the United States. It would be a violation of their constitutional rights to try and shut them up," observes Keith Ashdown of the US Cancer Prevention Coalition.
It should be of no small political concern that the march of the McDonald’s Corporation is a phenomenon that cannot be safely criticised in many of the countries populated by its all American burger culture. Huge neon ‘M’s on the sides of motorways, cinemas, and civic buildings brand the logo on our minds. In the United States, its citizens have the right to criticise but here in the UK, woe be unto anyone who dares object to the cultural foist of Ronald McDonald and the “McDonald’s experience”.
Indeed the list of UK libel casualties is extensive and the question provoked by each one is ‘Who can stand up to the financial resources of McDonald’s?’.
Under British libel laws, the onus lies on the critics to prove that their statements are either true or ‘fair comment’ based on fact. In order to do this the defendants must provide what is known as ‘primary evidence’. This entails direct witness statements but not commentary material such as books and press cuttings. For instance, if the defendants wanted to use information contained in a World Health Organisation report on say the links between a high fat diet and disease, they would have to bring an expert on the subject into the court room rather than just the written report itself.
Whilst it is possible to enter sworn statements from witnesses who live abroad, such statements carry less weight than a live witness because their evidence cannot be cross-examined before the judge.
It is rare to find expert scientists and food professionals willing to give up their time in order to appear personally in a witness box. Indeed, the McDonald’s Corporation pay the witnesses appearing on its behalf. Straight away this introduces a major financial advantage in being able to afford the costs of the flight, hotels and appearance fee.
It is a testament to how well regarded the defendants’ stance is that the 80 witnesses appearing on their behalf, are doing so for free. Usually the McLibel Support Campaign has been required to find the money for fares and accommodation; sometimes not. When Dr Neal Barnard came over from the United States, the US Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, of which he is President, paid his bills as their contribution to the defendants’ case.
...what is more obvious from McDonald’s history of suing every dissenting voice coming to its attention, is the Corporation’s fervent intent to preserve its jolly family image.
The defendants themselves of course are both unwaged, rendering legal representation completely unaffordable. As libel suits do not qualify for legal aid they have no choice but to learn the legal ropes and represent themselves. Their unwaged status also means that McDonald’s stand to gain no immediate financial benefit from winning the libel suit against them. Indeed, what is more obvious from McDonald’s history of suing every dissenting voice coming to its attention, is the Corporation’s fervent intent to preserve its jolly family image. Helen Morris and Dave Steel are in the unusual position of being sued for libel and yet having no financial resources. The fact that McDonald’s have pursued two unemployed people is indeed reflective of the degree to which they will go to protect their reputation. However, contrary to the Corporation’s manicured market drive, it could well prove to be one libel suit too many.
The McLibel trial currently in progress is undoubtedly the greatest level of opposition ever encountered by the Corporation in the courts. For the history of the many libel suits, either threatened or brought by McDonald’s, is a history of capitulation; a domino cascade of back downs and legally forced apologies where one submission has induced another in an epidemic of withdrawn dissent.
Take this simple sequence of events.
In 1987, the Transnational Information Centre - a London based organisation conducting investigations into the workings of trans-national corporations - published a well-researched document called ‘Working for Big Mac”. The booklet’s primary subject was the employment conditions of McDonald’s workers. As a consequence of publication, the Information Centre was sued by the McDonald’s Corporation and, unable to raise the money necessary to fight the court case, were forced to withdraw the booklet and formally apologise. The Guardian newspaper, which had published an article using information contained in ‘Working for Big Mac’, also apologised. As a consequence of the booklet’s withdrawal, the Transnational Information Centre went bust.
Then in 1991, two Scottish actors wrote a play for children called ‘MacBurger’s - Real Neat Scotch Fair’. The play was set in a Scottish burger bar and satirised the burger industry in general. It was performed several times by children between the ages of 7 and 15 at places such as the Stirling District Youth Theatre, a local junior school and the East Kilbride Village Theatre. At no point within the play was McDonald’s mentioned specifically. Once again the McDonald’s Corporation threatened to sue the playwrights unless they apologised and undertook never to put the play on again. To start with the actors ignored the threats but the Corporation grew more insistent. According to McDonald’s: “The play is riddled with political and defamatory anti- McDonald’s propaganda”.
In their legal warnings, McDonald’s cited no fewer than twenty-one quotations or references in the play they considered to have been extracted from the 'Working for Big Mac' booklet published by the Transnational Information Centre.
In their letter to the two actors, McDonald’s lawyers say: “Following the issue of proceedings for libel in the High Court in London, McDonald’s received a full apology for these allegations in Open Court both from Transnationals and from the Guardian.” The threat was clear. By basing their case on the references within the play similar to those in the ‘Working for Big Mac’ Booklet, any libel case involving the ‘MacBurger’ case would of course take into account the fact that the Transnational Information Centre and the Guardian had apologised. In court terms this implies that the organisations backing down did not have the evidence to support their allegations.
In a public letter, the two Scottish actors wrote: “Our own lawyer believes that we do have the basis of a case against them. However we are not in a the position to fund a long and protracted battle against them in the courts. We had little choice but to sign their undertaking.” The undertaking signed by the actors stated that the play was “defamatory and untrue”. The actors were also forced to enter into a legally binding agreement never to perform the play again. There was an outcry in the Scottish press but they in turn had to be careful what they said. The only avenue left for the expression of local anger was to use the relatively safe waters of parliamentary impunity and submit a House of Commons motion.
Proposed by Scottish MP George Galloway and supported by 11 other MPs, the motion read:
“That this house deplores the reprehensible act of artistic bullying committed by the fast food multinational McDonald’s, upon young Glasgow playwrights Steve Brown and Jenny Fraser, whose play ‘MacBurger’s - Real Neat Scotch Fare’ first hounded and now effectively banned by heavy handed legal actions co-ordinated from the company’s head office in Illinois, simply seeks to highlight the appalling working conditions many young people working in the fast food industry endure and is in any case fiction which does not mention McDonald’s once; [the house] is appalled that through the threat of protracted and expensive legal action McDonald’s, a multi-million pound company, has forced the authors to sign an undertaking that they will never again allow their work to be performed anywhere; and condemns this gross over-reaction on the part of the company which brings their whole enterprise into disrepute.” (Hansard: Motions No. 153/ 1198 ‘Conduct of McDonald’s’ 25/7/91)
In a letter sent to the McLibel defendants in August of this year, the two Scottish actors wrote: “Looking back, I wish we’d had the courage to do what you’ve done and taken them on.”
Indeed the stance taken by the McLibel Two has put the proverbial carpet back under dissenters’ feet. Successive submissions to the McDonald’s legal department had not only given the Corporation a stream of guilty admissions to wave at future judges, but it had also created a fear induced silence amongst the Corporation’s potential critics. The Guardian, The Sunday Correspondent, Channel Four, BBC Television, the Transnational Information Centre, the Vegetarian Society, the Bournemouth Advertiser and the Scottish TUC are just some of the organisations who have apologised for, and retracted, published information about the McDonald’s Corporation.
However, for a small publishing company in Poland, knowledge of the McLibel stance has come just in time. They were threatened by the McDonald’s Corporation after publishing a textbook for primary school fourth-grade students entitled ‘Biology 4: Man and Environment’. In the book are criticisms of McDonald’s connection with the destruction of rainforests, unhealthy food and environmentally unfriendly packaging. The Polish publishing house were unsure whether they could afford to fight the case and were considering both a retraction of the allegations and a commitment to remove the offending passages from future editions, as demanded by McDonald’s. That was before they heard about the McLibel Two in London and made contact with the Support Campaign.
After speaking with the McLibel Two, the small publishing house in Poland is examining the possibilities of defending themselves in court.
Huge quantities of information about the workings of the McDonald’s Corporation has been brought into the public domain courtesy of the McLibel trial. It is information that will stand up as evidence in any future libel suits McDonald’s may dare bring against its critics. After speaking with the McLibel Two, the small publishing house in Poland is examining the possibilities of defending themselves in court.
Every court case establishes a precedent, whether it be one of submission or one of stance. Up to now the mighty McDonald’s Corporation have forced submissions more through financial might than through just and truthful arguments. However, this long era of capitulation to such corporate control has finally been brought to a close by two environmental activists for whom an apology was too galling a prospect to contemplate.
McMAMMON SPECIAL - series of six articles exploring the McLibel trial and the mighty stance taken by two activists who refused to back down - Squall 11 - Autumn 1995
STILL GETTING GRILLED - anti-McDonald's campaigns across the world are attracting more popular support than ever - Nov-1999
CORPORATE COPS - Investigation into relationship between McDonalds and the British Police - 2000
A PROPER GRILLING - The McLibel trial and the legal aftermath reaches its climax at the end of 2004 - 12-Dec-2004