Directed by Fanny Armstrong and Ken Loach (2005)
The documentary McLibel tells the inspiring story of two London Greenpeace activists who stood up to a giant multinational corporation in the longest court battle in English history. Helen Steel and David Morris (the defendants) technically lost their case when the judge awarded McDonald’s (the plaintiffs) 60,000 pounds ($90,000) in damages. Nevertheless they clearly won in the court of public opinion, especially after the European Court of Human rights ruled in their favor in 2004.
For me the best part of the film is the beginning, which examines discovery documents showing that London Greenpeace was infiltrated by 17 spies from two different detective agencies hired by McDonald’s. Infiltration by corporate informants is far more difficult to document than FBI or police spying – private corporations that spy on activists have no accountability under the Freedom of Information Act or comparable state and local laws.
According to court documents, there were as many spies as activists at some meetings and some spies assumed major responsibility for organizing campaigns.
How UK Libel Laws Suppress Free Speech
Britain has very different libel laws than the US, and they have a very chilling effect on free speech. In the UK, an individual sued for making defamatory statements is required to prove – beyond a reasonable doubt – that these statements are true.
In 1990, five London Greenpeace activists received libel writs for a leaflet they were distributing in front of McDonald’s. The writ threatened to take them to court unless they apologized for their actions. Three apologized. Steel and Davis refused to apologize, and in 1994 McDonald’s started court action against them.
As Britain provides no legal aid in liability cases, they had to defend themselves. McDonald’s, in contrast, spent 10 million pounds on lawyers and expert witnesses.
Steel and Davis were fortunate to receive pro bono legal advice from an experienced lawyer, in addition to invaluable assistance from the McDonald’s Support Campaign. In addition to fundraising to pay legal costs and witness airfares, this support group also organized media outreach, support protests and help them start a website, McSpotlight, in 1996. The website launch provided a major breakthrough in the case, as it enabled them to circumvent the corporate media and go directly to the public with their story.
What Steel and Morris Had to Prove
The specific statements (from the leaflet) that Steel and Morris were obliged to prove were
1. That McDonald’s food was unhealthy.
2. That they treated workers badly,
3. That their advertising deliberately manipulated and exploited children
4. That their production practices were detrimental to the environment
5. That their production practices helped perpetuate animal cruelty
Steel, Morris and their supporters persuaded an impressive array of international experts to testify on their behalf, including renowned nutrition researchers, a former Ronald McDonald impersonator and former cattle rancher Howard Lyman.*
A PR Disaster for McDonald’s
After nearly three years, the judge ruled the defendants had proved roughly half their claims. The initial damages he awarded (60,000 pounds) were reduced to 40,000 pounds on an appeal. Nevertheless, the trial was a total PR disaster for McDonald’s. The media storm surrounding the case caused “fringe” concerns raised to be shared by a broad cross section of the public. As a direct result of the McLibel case, McDonald’s began showing quarterly losses and shutting stores in 2002.
They have made no attempt to collect the 40,000 pounds from Steel and Morris.
*Howard Lyman is a former US rancher turned vegetarian and animal rights activists who (along with Oprah Winfrey) was unsuccessfully sued (in 1998) for “food disparagement.”