The decision by McDonald's to sue two penniless activists in the English libel courts must rank as one of the great own goals of contemporary business life, as the corporation finds itself bogged down in the second year of a trial it cannot win. Even if the judge finds in its favour, McDonald's has already lost.
In the past, this case would have been forgotten after the first week. Instead, every revelation has been circulated to millions worldwide via the internet. With a claimed one million visits in its first month, McSpotlight (www.mcspotlight.org) is a corporate disaster area. For those who believe the forces of globalisation suit the powerhil this site shows that it is possible to redress the balance. The site is clearly laid out, with sections covering the major issues raised in the case, summaries of the hearing, profiles of the defendants, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, exclusive interviews and pieces from newspapers around the world.
The site details how the court has slowly chewed its way through McDonald's record, covering every issue from cash crops, the destruction of rainforests, the conditions in which animals are kept, the company's employment record and the connection between diet and disease. Every questionable statement McDonald's has made, every poorly phrased memo is preserved in digital bite-size chunks, available, however unfairly, to anyone around the world with a computer and a modem.
One of the funniest files in McSpotlight is a selection of McQuotes from the trial. In one exchange, the defendants asked Dr Sydney Arnott (McDonald's expert on cancer) to comment on the words: "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."
He replied; "If it is being directed to the public then I would say it is a very reasonable thing to say."
The court was then informed that the statement was an extract from the original London Greenpeace Factsheet, which prompted the libel action.
The lessons for McDonald's have been expensive and painful. The company spends $ 1.8 billion a year on advertising and promotion. Its lawyers watch the mainstream media with hawk-like vigilance. But normal rules don't apply in cyberspace. The hierarchies acknowedged by the mainstream media mean nothing here.
Spare a thought for the judge. In McSpotlight, the case is neatly laid out, with hypertext links making everything accessible and easy to follow. All he has is a pen and end]ess notebooks.