- McLibel -

Where does this leave free speech?

Posted by: Dave ( City Uni, London, UK ) on June 20, 1997 at 18:17:23:

The McDonald's corporation, symbol of the American entrepreneurial spirit,
is not so all-American as to embrace the principles of free speech enshrined
in the US constitution. Instead, they had to come to the UK to take
advantage of laughably antiquated libel laws to try and suppress criticism
of their operation.

Having read the summary judgment, I feel that the judge was impartial, or at least tried to be, though I question some of his reasoning.

But the real problem is a system that allows people with big money to squash those without any for simply speaking their minds. As far as I can see there's no evidence that McD's business was adversely affected by the campaigning against them in the 80s, and in any case the best way to respond to the allegations would be to present their side of the story. However, time and again they chose to flex their corporate muscle by threatening expensive legal action against critics (the Robert Maxwell tactic) until eventually two people decided to stand their ground.

Did the trial give a fair verdict? No doubt McD think so. But with the best will
in the world, Morris and Steel probably were not able to present as good
a case as a legal professional would have done. But because UK law
denies libel defendants legal aid, they could not get such representation.
In order to prove that they were only interested in the truth, I think McD should have paid for Steel & Morris to be represented. But of course, profit is what McD are interested in, nothing else. They're not a charity.

Where the system also fails is in denying Morris & Steel a jury. The judge argued that the issues about nutrition were too complex for a jury. But juries
have dealt with complex evidence before, and it also forces both sides to
present their evidence in as clear and concise a manner as possible.
And why should we suppose that the judge could deal with this evidence
any better?

In regard to some of the points that Morris & Steel lost on, I think the judge
was right in saying certain points in the leaflet were perhaps worded too
extremely given the evidence. However, even so I felt that the judgement that
they were defamatory was unfair, but then perhaps this is just because of
the legal definition of defamation. For example, while the judge felt
that eating many burgers posed a health risk, it was still found defamatory
to associate McD with lack of nutrition and disease, on the basis
that an occasional burger as part of a reasonable diet would be OK. But he also
said that high fat, salt etc. were the kind of things associated with disease, and that the defendants could have expressed this in a more moderate wording.
To my mind, the gist of this is still that McD burgers are NOT healthy food,
and that, despite the extremity of the L.Greenpeace comments, the balance of
judgment here should have favoured the defendants.

So where does this leave free speech? Although the campaigners can claim
a victory by virtue of the fact that the issues have now recieved a
wider airing, it shouldn't be forgotten that many people caved in to McD
before a stand was taken. The same happened with Robert Maxwell. Until we
get a reform of UK libel laws, free speech will be stifled because those without
money will frequently be silence by those who can threaten expensive
legal action. We can't always rely on people like Helen Morris and David
Steel to take a stand.

On a more personal level, I take great pleasure that the victory for McD
is so hollow, and that they have been so frequently embarrassed along the
way. Their food is ghastly, the seating in the restaurants is excruciatingly
uncomfortable, but worst of all, along with various other corporations they
bear the responsibility for erasing all trace of individual identity from
the world's towns and cities. They are changing the whole world into a global
shopping mall, and it looks pretty damn ugly.

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