When I was a teenager, McDonald's was the place to hang out. Many of my
school friends worked there and as part of my footy training regime, I used
to time how quickly it took me to run from home to McDonald's. I got faster
when my first big romance blossomed with an employee and despite the fact I
was usually sweaty and panting, our conversation eventually got beyond "do
you want fries with that?". I was there so often I even got presented with a
VIP card and got a free coffee with my hamburger. All of this seems a bit
strange to me now, having been a vegetarian for over 12 years (and not
having played football for even longer).
People tend to either love McDonald's or hate them. Picture a dinner party with a vegetarian, a greenie, and a unionist, seated next to a beef farmer, a Macca's mum and a McHappy kid who can recite "Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onion on a sesame seed bun" faster than the greenie can say "Two beautiful rainforests cut down for burger production and made into a waste land for wrappers".
Take the party to a courtroom and have the after-dinner conversation go for nine years and you have something approximating the McLibel case. In 1990 British activists, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, were served libel writs by the fast food giant for handing out leaflets titled "What's wrong with McDonalds?". The two dressed down vegetarians defended themselves against a multinational corporation with huge legal resources and the case became the longest in British history. The legal cost to McDonald's was enormous, the public relations cost possibly higher.
The leaflet and thousands of pages of supporting documentation and court transcripts was put on the defendant's own website, which to date has had over 40 million hits. The McLibel case proved very popular with the public, generating worldwide media coverage and it is still continuing - nine years after it began. McDonalds might have been better off had they allowed Steel and Morris to hand out their leaflets but as the numerous individuals and organisations who had previously apologised under threat of legal action can testify, that is not their way.
While Steel and Morris were vindicated in regard to claims that McDonalds exploited children through their advertising, paid workers low wages and were responsible for animal cruelty, the Judge ruled in favour of McDonald's on a number issues including accusations about packaging and rainforest destruction. Appeals against these later findings have commenced.
Now this real-life David & Goliath battle is the subject of a recently released film documentary, "McLibel: Two Worlds Collide". The film was shown in 22 countries including Australia on 12 January 1999, the same day the defendants started their appeal to the High Court (expect a sequel). The appeal finished in February and the judgement is expected in a few weeks.
The film urges McDonald's to become a more responsible corporate citizen and raises awareness of animal welfare and environmental issues that all businesses should genuinely address. It also highlights the lengths McDonalds were prepared to go to silence criticism.
McDonald's in Australia have quite sensibly tried to stay out of the McLibel issue. In a McFax (no really) they sent to me they say it "(the documentary) involved British issues and does not implicate or involve McDonald's Australia". That seems a bit implausible, given the global scale of McDonald's. In 1999 a new McDonalds will open every 4 hours somewhere around the world.
In the original trial Judge Robert Bell ruled in favour of McDonald's in regards to criticisms of excessive packaging and rainforest destruction. Scientific experts gave evidence on how the increased consumption of hamburgers in the west has increased cattle grazing which lead to rainforest destruction in the developing world and widespread land clearing in other parts of the planet. Even though McDonald's imported Brazilian beef into the UK in the 1980's and is the world's single largest user and promoter of beef products (and the second largest user of chicken), the judge said McDonalds was not responsible for rainforest destruction because McDonald's itself had not bought land for cattle ranching.
In the trial much evidence was heard about how both the production and disposal of packaging inevitably damaged the environment. Evidence was given that McDonald's produce 1 million tons of waste packaging each year at its 21,000 plus food outlets worldwide. The food packaging is used for 5 minutes then thrown away becoming landfill or litter. The Judge ruled that most of the evidence relating to packaging was irrelevant.
Steel and Morris were successful on the issue of animal welfare, with the Judge ruling that McDonald's "are culpably responsible for cruel practices in the rearing and slaughter of some of the animals which are used to produce their food". These cruel practices include "the severe restriction of movement" suffered by battery hens, broiler chickens, and intensively reared pigs, the products from these animals are used in McDonald's food. McDonald's protested this verdict by claiming that they meet all government regulations and standards in the area of animal welfare. In a sense, McDonald's has a point, although what the McLibel verdict highlights is the inadequacy of existing regulations in preventing cruelty to animals.
I have been to battery hen establishments and they are very uncomfortable just to visit. Aside from the tangible cruelty of the conditions, you are struck by the likeness to an Orwellian nightmare.
Some commentators have drawn parallels between the way McDonalds treat their employees and the way they use animals. Shots in the film of young workers on the hamburger production line dressing a hamburger in 39 seconds, are juxtaposed with battery hens in rows of cages with eggs moving along a conveyer belt. The McLibel verdict stated McDonald's "does pay its workers low wages" and "are strongly antipathetic to any idea of unionisation". Yet many Macca's Mums - mothers of teenagers who works at McDonalds, claim McDonald's has done them a momentous service in employing their children for the duration of their teenage working life. A recent McDonald's television advertisement did not show Ronald, did not show restaurants, and did not show food, just parents looking in wonder at the immaculately tidy room of their teenage child (who works at McDonalds).
The McLibel case raised such interest because it covers so many issues: worker's rights, animal welfare, environmental impacts of the meat industry and excessive packaging, the nutritional value of fast food, and the ethics of aiming advertising at children. But there are also bigger issues of censorship and the power of huge corporations.
In 1996 McDonald's took over from Coca-Cola as the most recognised brand in the world, making it a more identifiable symbol than even the Christian cross. The issues involved in the McLibel case are not just about McDonald's, but about the huge and varied impacts, both positive and negative, which global corporations have on our lives. If I had to make a choice over whose ethics should dominate the world, I would rather go with Jesus than Ronald.
Steel and Morris are presently in the British High Court appealing on the basis that the findings against McDonald's are so damaging, that the Corporation's claim for libel should have been thrown out of court originally. Specifically they argue that the public has the right to scrutinise and criticise companies whose business practices affect their lives, health and environment, and as such multinational corporations should no longer be able to sue for libel. For a multinational to sue individuals for saying something that might be detrimental to their product is a very powerful form of censrship.
On the first day of the appeal Morris said, "The point of serving libel writs is not to have a court case but... to have a 'chilling effect' on free speech".
The McLibel case showed you don't have to be Oprah Winfrey (almost a corporation unto herself) to have a chance of defending yourself against a litigious meat industry. Consumers have a right to free speech, to distribute accurate information, and to criticise the behaviour of large corporations. The legal system should not allow large corporations like McDonald's to bring actions to stifle criticism and informed debate about animal agriculture, the environment and consumer rights.
A fast food mega-giant has the freedom and the resources for glossy advertising portraying McCows being McSlaughtered so we can all be McHappier but they shouldn't be able to sue anyone who says the cows weren't smiling. Whether you are a Macca's mum, a crusading vegetarian, a farmer, a greenie, or a unionist - try to see 'McLibel Two Worlds Collide', and make up your own mind. After all McDonald's spend millions in advertising dollars to make sure you know their side.
The film ends with Morris and Steel on the steps of the courtroom after the divided verdict, surrounded by a cheering crowd. Morris holds up his briefcase with a hand written sign sticky-taped to it that says, "Read the leaflet: Judge for yourself."
The Leaflet "What's wrong with McDonalds?" can be found at the website www.mcspotlight.org/
The 55 minute documentary can be watched as streaming video on the internet at: www.spanner.org/mclibel>
(The romantically inclined may like to know my first love was sacked by McDonald's before turning 18, but thankfully by then we had enough imagination to have found other places to meet.)