SMALL FRIES TAKE ON BIG MACS

By JENNI McMANUS.

The Independent Business Weekly (Australia/NZ); 27th June 1997

It began as a straightforward libel case - if such a thing can be said to exist.

In the one corner, McDonald's, a $US30 billion American corporation. Squaring off against it in another are two self-described anarchists an unemployed solo dad and a part-time barmaid, earning between them 7,500 a year.

Some 313 days of evidence later, the longest trial in British history has degenerated into a marketing McBlunder.

When the verdict came in late last week awarding McDonald's 60,000 damages against the penniless pair, a leading London pr-man was moved to describe the corporation as "scoring one of the most extended own-goals in the recent history of public relations."

Viewing the trial as yet another demonstration of Britain's barbarous and antiquated libel laws, the British press quickly dubbed it the case of the "small fries taking on the Big Macs."

Never before had McDonald's found its conduct and business practices so open to scrutiny.

Rather than being confined to Court 35, the company found itself on trial in the court-room of public opinion. The way the case was handled, particularly in its early stages, and the gross imbalance of the legal and financial odds between McDonald's on the one hand, and the defendants on the other, made a mockery of what many reasonable people might call justice.

No wonder McDonald's was determined the case shouldn't go before a jury. Many people find offensive the idea of multinationals suing individuals, no matter what the cause.

As Guardian journalist John Vidal puts in his just-published book McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial, "A jury is always unpredictable, and might identify with Helen Steel and David Morris and regard a stream of heavyweight executives as alien or distasteful."

The first stages of any libel trial, Vidal says, "are conducted with a cloak of medieval formality and courtesy hiding vicious tactics." He says Steel and Morris were treated during the pre-trial interlocutory applications "as an irrelevance or an obstacle to the proceedings, rather than a party with the right to be heard and participate."

Forced to defend themselves after being denied legal aid, David Morris and Helen Steel, from all accounts, put up a creditable showing.

While finding they had defamed McDonald's by their allegations that the corporation destroyed rain forests to farm its meat, caused starvation in the third world, poisoned its customers and exploited its workers, Justice Rodger Bell last week also ruled the two bush lawyers had proven three key points - that McDonalds was "culpably responsible" for cruelty to animals, that the corporation exploited children in its advertising and that it paid low wages.

So why did McDonald's sue?

Why would a corporation which has taken over from the US Army as the western world's largest staff trainer, whose golden arches have surpassed the Christian cross as the world's second most widely recognised symbol, and with a bigger balance sheet than Tanzania, Ethiopia and the Sudan combined, take on two obscure British activists over claims in a leaflet that only a few hundred people, at most, would have read?

Why would it spend a reputed 10 million in legal fees to do so, hiring Britain's top libel QC, Richard Rampton, to argue its case?

Why hammer two individuals, so impecunious they were forced to use the Piccadilly Line as their office, when the company had no hope of collecting damages, even if it were to win?

To protect its good name, McDonald's says. The offending fact-sheet was dangerous, it said, disseminating allegations which threatened to become common parlance.

Claiming itself to be satisfied with the verdict, McDonald's says it will pursue the couple for the 60,000 damages award, but not to the point of bankruptcy.

As the pair have no money and no assets, it would seem to be a barren judgment.

For their part, Morris and Steel say they're headed for the European Court of Justice to do battle against their country's defamation laws.

Exactly how damaging the case has been to McDonald's in public relations terms is spelled out in Vidal's book, published by Macmillan on the eve of the verdict.

Researched and written in an astonishing six weeks, McLibel traverses the allegations, the counter-claims, the background to the case, and the law.

Inevitably, McDonald's conduct, business practices and morality were just as much on trial as the defendants. While this is par for the course in defamation cases, Morris and Steel found themselves able to file a counter-claim against the corporation, after McDonald's, as the case was about to go to trial, published its own leaflet describing the activists as liars.

From that point on, McDonald's was legally obliged to prove that its business practices were not as outlined in the fact-sheet, and produce supporting evidence. Effectively, the corporation had put itself on trial.

As Vidal puts it: "Right at the centre is the million-dollar question that Steel and Morris always want to address: if two alternative worlds are here on show, what kind of society do people really want?"

Or, as Morris more bluntly states: "It's lucky they only make f***ing hamburgers."

So what do we learn?

McDonald's, we read, sent spies into London Greenpeace (where Morris and Steel were members) to try to identify those responsible for the offending leaflets. Activists were followed, and even bedded, in a bid to extract information.

We learn of cases of food poisoning - some of them fatal - where McDonald's made either an out-of-court, no liability settlement or is being sued by the parents of children who, they claim, died after visiting McDonald's.

We hear about the $US20,000 million McDonald's has spent on promoting itself in the past 20 years, and its $US1,800 million global advertising budget in 1995.

We hear about its attitudes to organised labour, and the extent to which McDonald's has resisted attempts to set up unions in its restaurants.

We hear, ironically, that while the fact-sheet had been distributed to only a few hundred people, at most, before the writ was filed, supporters of Morris and Steel set up a McSpotlight site on the World Wide Web in February last year. The fact-sheet has now been read by more than seven million people.

And much more.

Also on trial are Britain's libel laws.

Steel, Morris and Vidal himself argue the case demonstrates the need for the House of Lords ruling banning government agencies from suing for libel to be extended to include multi-national corporations.

Say Morris and Steel: "People should have the right to put forward their honestly held beliefs to draw attention to what they see as the problems with the way society is run ... It is in the public interest that there be the widest possible dissemination of critical information about those institutions which dominate our lives and environment.

"There also needs to be vibrant public debate about what is really happening around us, and about alternatives."

As Vidal sees it: "Here was one of the most powerful corporations in the world suing two people for what it claimed was the lowering of its reputation, without having to prove or show that it had lost the sale of a single hamburger as a result of the leaflet being distributed."

If national and local government cannot be libelled because the courts consider them well able to withstand public criticism, "is there not a massive case now to reform the British libel laws?" he asks.

"Libel has clearly become a game for the rich to play ... the McLibel trial has made great theatre but a mockery of good sense."


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