- Capitalism and Alternatives -

Some points on McLibel.

Posted by: Rex ( McSpotlight, UK ) on October 06, 1999 at 14:17:59:

In Reply to: not really posted by Gee on October 01, 1999 at 10:55:28:

: I must admit I'm not knowledgable as to the McDonalds case, the site updates on it occasionally but it isnt something that interests a great many people. If McD's is lying and trying to coerce/ threaten with violence the people criticising it then to hell with them. If they have a case (that the criticism is false in some way) then there is the lengthy case.

Except that, given enough money, you can hire lawyers to argue your case for you. Here in the UK, you don't get legal aid for libel; if you want to fight a libel case, you have to provide the funds to hire lawyers yourself; if you don't have the funds (like the McLibel Two), you have to either apologise or fight the suit in person; and in a court of law, any non-lawyer is at a big disadvantage up against a lawyer; they don't know the procedures, the processes and the niceties; which annoys the judge. In this case, McDonald's could hire the UK's best libel lawyer for three years; because they had the power to. That's one advantage to the side with more money before the case even starts.

Secondly, the burden of libel in the UK rests on the defendant. This means that person or company X can say "person Y libelled me!" - and it's up to person Y to prove they didn't - they are assumed guilty until proven innocent.

Now, some of the issues on which McDonald's were criticized are complex; take, for example, diet and health. There is a growing body of opinion that a diet which consists largely of junk food is linked to cancer in later life. The UN World Health Organisation (WHO) in their 1990 report said as much. Yet a paraphrasing of the same statement was one of the major points of contest in the trial;

"McDonald's promote their food as 'nutritious'(7), but the reality is that it is junk food(8)- high in fat, sugar and salt, and low in fibre and vitamins(9). A diet of this type is linked with a greater risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other diseases(10)"

(see the sources of the references at the referenced "What's Wrong With McDonald's" leaflet.)

McDonald's response was to produce their own diet experts who disagreed with the WHO's conclusion (Dr. Sydney Arnott was one such witness). However, under cross-examination in court, Dr. Arnott said of the statement "A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals is linked with cancer of the breast and bowel and heart disease" that "If it is being directed to the public then I would say it is a very reasonable thing to say." - whereupon he was informed that that was the wording in the leaflet that caused McDonald's to cite it as a libel.

Their own experts were agreeing with the statements in the WWWM leaflet; yet for every point, there had to be clear proof. Many of the claims contested by McDonald's didn't have such clear proof; or the defendants didn't have the resources to produce witnesses who did.

Take the rainforest evidence; there were 15 expert witnesses who testified to McDonald's involvement in rainforest destruction. Yet the judge eventually ruled that McDonald's did not destroy the rainforest; they destroyed dry tropical forest instead; the judge cited leaf size of the trees destroyed as a reason for his choice. This is hairsplitting to all but the most fervent botanist; yet it meant the claim that McD's destroyed the rainforest was ruled as libellous.

Examine the resources available to each side; McDonald's spent some 16 million dollars over three years; the defendants raised and spent some 30,000 ($50,000). Given the resource gap, how could any trial be fair; if one side can afford to spend 320 times as much on the case as the other.

There comes a point at which McDonald's can impress their case upon a judge because they employ professional lawyers and do not have to defend themselves in person; physical exhaustion on the defendants parts led to two adjournments in the case; much of their evidence was ruled out because they simply didn't have the time and resources to organize it properly by themselves (along with any helpful volunteers who happened to be around).

Despite all this, when it came down to it, the judge ruled that McDonald's was guilty of culpable cruelty to animals, exploiting their UK workforce and exploiting children and their parents. Most of the "unproven" verdicts he gave were due to what any normal person would call hair-splitting (see "rainforest" point above).

It's worth pointing out that, in the run-up to the appeal, McDonald's admitted themselves that the three points they lost on were true;

"We make no criticism of the learned Judge's judgment. To a large extent my response to the Defendants' appeal will be that the learned judge was right for the reasons he gave."

- so why on earth did they press them in the first place if they knew they were true?

(And why haven't they done anything to change their practices since?)

The fact remains that the UK libel laws are deeply unfair; placing the burden of proof on the defendant and refusing to allow access to Legal Aid means that large companies can make libel threats to any statement they don't like; especially if the authors of the statements do not have the stomach for a legal fight. McDonald's in particular were fond of this tactic; see here for previous libel cases they engaged in.

Would you have heard of any of this if the McLibel Two hadn't been prepared to buck the trend and fight; despite the personal cost to them?

No. The law courts (or threat of them) remain one of the most effective tools of suppression available to corporates in this country. If your lawyers are good enough, they can destroy most opponents and/or evidence, regardless of whether it is true or not. It requires the equivalent of a smoking gun covered with fingerprints to defeat the most skilled lawyers; and in these issues, there just aren't such discrete amounts of evidence.

Even when the issues under debate are important on a national and global level.

Is this justice?

Rex, McSpotlight


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