Weekend television is often dire, but this weeks Channel 4 provides a good reason for staying in on both nights. McLibel is a fascinating reconstructicn of the longest civil case in British legal history, in whicb the hamburger company, McDonald's, is suing Dave Morris and Helen Steei of London Greenpeace, for libel. The hearing began in June 1994, lasted until December 1996, and the judge is not expected to announce his verdict until next month at the earliest.
It is not difficult to see why McDonald's felt it had to bring the action, nor difficult to see that from the beginning it was on a hiding to nothing. The members of London Greenpeace (not to be confused with GreenPeace International) organtsed a campaign which had, in their own words, "The aim of smashing a multinational [which] epitomises everything we despise: a junk culture, the deadly benality of capitalism". They distributed pamphlets which used words such as "McDeadly, McCancer" and "McDisease" and alleged that McDonald's products could be linked with food poisoning, heart disease and cancer. They also accused the company of exploiting its staff, causing pain to animals, and contributing to the destruction of rain forests by raising beef on cleared land.
Originally McDonald's took action against five members of London Greenpeace, but three apologised and withdrew their allegations. In McLibel! we hear one explaining as a witness that his only reason for doing this was that he had been told legal aid was not available and he feared going bankrupt. He still believed everything in the pamphlet. Morris, played by Peter-Hugo Daly, and Steel, played by Julha Sawalha, decided to represent themselves and fight the case.
They wanted a jury but the judge, Mr Justice Bell declared that the detail was too complicated for members of the public and decided to, hear it on his own.
Tonight's programme runs for 1 3/4 hours and tomorrow's for 1 1/2 hours, hardly excessive when you are condensing 313 days of court hearings. Of course courts provide one of the classic settings for high drama, and this case - with a pair of Davids up against a multinational Goliath represented in court by Richard Rampton, QC, on an alleged day rate of £2,000 - is particularly gripping. But it is not the drama that hits you hardest.
The sensation inspired quite early in Programme 1 is a pride in being part of a culture which is not only willing to devote such time and trouble to settling a matter of this sort, but which believes this is the right and only way-to do so. The other unexpected effect ls to create something close to "Stockholm Syndrome", the phenomenon observed so often among hostages and hijack victims who come to sympathise with their captors. At one time or another the viewer comes to sympathise with virtually every body in the trial.
There is a moment when Morris asks a black executive from McDonald's "Isn't it a fact that the shit work in society is done by disadvantaged groups?" and Rampton jumps up saying "My Lord, may I ask what that means?" only to be told by Mr Justice Bell "Well I know what it means", making you want to cheer for the judges who have come so far since the days of "What are The Beatles?"
There is no disguising the fact that a political confrontation occurred in that court. room. with emotional environrnentalists full of concern for the ecosphere facing freemarket trader dedicated to supplying popular products at low prices.
Though it is not the pun pose of the legal system to test the strength of such competing philosophies, it is a triumph of both that system and the television production that this is, nevertheless, what the viewer is induced to do. Even in this heavily condensed version the detail explored in multifarious subjects from the rearing of battery hens to McDonald's use of a "hustle" policy, from the abattoirs' "captive bolt system" of stunning cattle to the psychology of using clowns to attract children with advertising campaigns, seems astoudingly thorough.
The direction is invisible, which is greatly to the credit of James Cellan Jones. The acting is so good that you forget this is a dramatised version and watch as though observing the real people during actual court proceedings. And although the viewer cannot know what has been excluded, the programme team under producer Dennis Woolf seems to have done an astonishing job of coodensing uniquely lengthy proceedings to create a coherent whole. Tbe result is hugely to the credit of Channel 4 in particular and television in general.