McLibel: Making A Stand
This year marks the 50th anniversary of McDonald’s, and the worldwide protest movement against the fast-food chain also celebrates 20 years of growing opposition. We look back on the history of the McLibel case, talk to the director of the McLibel documentary, and remember one of the vegan activists who helped start a campaign that was to change the world.
LONDON GREENPEACE AND THE BACKGROUND TO
Established in 1970, London Greenpeace was the
original Greenpeace group in Europe. From the very beginning, the
organisation was involved in a rainbow of radical environmental and
social justice issues, ranging from campaigns against nuclear weapons and
nuclear power to active support for the miners’ strike. Animal rights
was also high on the agenda, with veganism being promoted throughout
these times as part of the wider struggle against oppression, in which
animals were seen as exploited and oppressed by modern society just as
most people are.
In the 1980s many groups were involved in campaigns against different
aspects of McDonald’s business practices. London Greenpeace brought them
all together in a general campaign covering all of the issues with which
McDonald’s were involved.
The first 'Worldwide Day of Action Against McDonald’s’ took place in
1985, with the now legendary 'What's Wrong With McDonald's?' factsheet
being produced the following year. The leaflet accused the fast-food
giant of promoting an unhealthy diet, unethically advertising fast-food
to children, and exploiting their workers. It also attacked the company
on environmental and animal welfare grounds, and promoted veganism.
It wasn’t long before McDonald’s decided to act. The corporation hired
spies to infiltrate London Greenpeace and a libel action was filed
against some of the group’s activists. Despite being advised that libel
laws are stacked in favour of the rich and powerful, gardener Helen Steel
and ex-postman Dave Morris decided to fight the case and stand up for the
public interest against the might of the global corporation. The McLibel
Support Campaign was set up, and international publicity, protests and
leafleting mushroomed. The reality of McDonald’s was at last being
exposed and publicly debated.
McLibel provided a rallying point for anti-McDonald’s campaigners, and
the whole thing snowballed into one huge public relations disaster for
the world’s biggest fast-food chain. A book, a film and a website all
helped to spread the word all over the world.
After the longest trial in English history, the courts ruled that
McDonald's marketing "pretended to a positive nutritional benefit
which their food did not match" and that "if one eats enough
McDonald's food, one's diet may well become high in fat etc., with the
very real risk of heart disease."; that they "exploit
children" with their advertising; are "culpably responsible for
animal cruelty"; and "pay low wages, helping to depress wages
in the catering trade."
However the Courts ruled that the McLibel 2 had still libelled McDonald's
over some points and, despite the damning judgements, outrageously
ordered them to pay £40,000 damages to the $35 billion-dollar company!
The McLibel 2 refused to pay and took the British Government to the
European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the McLibel trial was unfair
and that UK libel laws were oppressive. The ECHR agreed that the trial
had been unfair, but failed to slam the UK’s notorious libel laws.
However, the actions of thousands of people around the world who
continued to leaflet and protest in defiance of McDonald’s censorship
efforts have helped to protect freedom of expression and have made it
less likely that powerful multinationals will attempt to bully
campaigners in this way again.
For more information on the McLibel trial and the wider campaign, visit
the McSpotlight website at
REMEMBERING GARY BATCHELOR
AN ‘ORDINARY’ VEGAN WHO HELPED START AN
Compiled by Alex Bourke, Paul Gravett, Dave Morris and Gary’s
Vegan from the age of 14, Gary was involved in London Greenpeace in the
1980s, and was one of the instigators of the anti-McDonald’s campaign. He
fought for animal and human liberation, peace and environmental
protection. A stalwart of the animal rights movement, Gary was an
ever-present face at demonstrations and gatherings. Always approachable
and willing to discuss his feelings, he was loved by all who knew him.
Friends and people from his past who hadn’t met in years reunited to
celebrate Gary’s life and remember him and his beliefs at two special
events in London, where he lived for many years.
On Thursday 21st July, undeterred by the second wave of bombings in
London, people walked from all over the city and from further afield for
a picket and leafleting dedicated to Gary outside McDonald’s in Leicester
Square. The next evening, there was a memorial gathering for friends and
comrades at Pogo vegan cafe in East London. A gang of veggies and vegans
celebrated his life in the way he would have wanted, with vegan food and
cake and bringing their own booze. People recalled favourite moments with
Collage of memories:
'Gary was a great character and friend, someone who was ever present
during the 1980s. He liked to chat about loads of things.'
'I first met Gary outside the Canadian Embassy in 1984 at a demo in
solidarity with some jailed Canadian environmental activists. He was one
of four people who had made the effort to turn up. His uncompromising
energy will be missed.'
'Gary had always been a fine, wonderful person to know and lived for
every living form of life.'
'I know Gary’s good ideas and good influence will live on into the
future. I will always remember him as a kind, compassionate person, and a
MCLIBEL: THE FILM
Filmed on a shoestring over ten years, the
documentary about the McLibel saga brought the story to millions of
people around the world. The Vegan talks to director Franny Armstrong of
McLibel was finally shown on British TV this year which was fantastic.
Why did it take so long?
Since Helen and Dave won in court in 1997 on the issues of healthy eating
and advertising junk food to kids, these have become enormous public
interest issues. Look at the success of Fast Food Nation and Super Size
Me. Before McLibel, McDonald's had created a climate of fear around
issues concerning their products by threatening to sue anyone who dared
criticise them. Post-McLibel they've not sued anyone, which opened up the
floodgates for criticism of McDonald's and other multinationals.
By the time Helen and Dave won at the European Court of Human Rights in
February this year it was impossible for the BBC to ignore McLibel any
longer. It took exactly ten years from when I started working on the film
to getting it onto the BBC. They screened it first on BBC4 in April and
then got such a huge response from the public that it was shown on BBC2
in a flagship series of hit documentaries in June 2005.
Do you think the media in general is biased against vegetarians and
I think most people in the media - like most people in our society
generally - are meat eaters. It's normal to feel slightly threatened by
someone who has made changes to their life for moral reasons which you're
not doing yourself. This feeling of guilt in meat-eating journos may come
out sideways as sniping at veggies. As awareness of modern food
production methods increases, I think the health (and ethical) benefits
of an animal-free diet will become more and more accepted by the public
and the media.
Tell us about the philosophy of Spanner.
We make films we think are important, regardless of whether the
mainstream TV industry wants them or not. More than 50 million people
around the world have seen our three big docs: 'Drowned Out' - about the
fight against the Narmada Dam in India, 'Baked Alaska' - about climate
change in Alaska and, of course, 'McLibel'.
What do you think of Supersize Me?
I'm lovin it.
Can you make a living from your films?
People always ask whether I'm rich and the answer is ‘yes, very’. I'm
spending my few decades on the planet doing something worthwhile, I work
with people who have the same ideals and motivations as me and I count
amongst my friends Eskimos in Alaska and tribal villagers in India. So I
am very rich. But I don't have lots of money, no. Just about enough for
me and two others to get paid slightly below minimum wage.
What's your next project?
An epic about oil, war, climate change and the end of the world.
Don't expect to see it in a multiplex near you any time soon.
If you'd like to learn how to make your own documentary on a budget,
Franny is running a course with Oscar-winning producer John Battsek in
London on 3rd - 4th September. Find out more at www.spannerfilms.net
where you can also buy their films, including McLibel.
- press cuttings: McDonald's
- press cuttings: McLibel
- press cuttings: Campaigns
- press cuttings: McLibel film
- press cuttings: related stuff
- press releases & statements
- photo album, cartoons, subvertisements
- interviews, books, plays, reports
- witnesses statements, transcripts, evidence