Delicious, nutritious and litigious

Fred Pearce reviews John Vidal's McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial

New Scientist; Vol 154 No 2083; 24 May 1997

THERE is a sizable band of journalists, and I am one, that has backtracked in a flurry of apologies and erratum slips after falling foul of McDonald's libel lawyers. Usually this was because of some throwaway allegation that its burgers might have been made from beef raised on recently felled rainforest. More or less honestly, we publicly accepted the company's assurances that this was nonsense. So we are humbled that it took two penurious pamphleteers to attempt to justify their claims in what has become the longest trial in English history.

The judge's ruling is still awaited on whether allegations contained in a six-page leaflet put out by Helen Steel, Dave Morris and others at London Greenpeace were libellous. For a more digestible and politically extremely nutritious version of the 30-month trial, sink your teeth into John Vidal's McLibel: Burger Culture on Trral.

Vidal, of The Guardian, is the best journalist in Britain on the Zertgerst of being green. Whether standing with Swampy in his tunnels or with Steel and Morris in the libel courts, he wears his politics on his sleeve. He is a little more cautious here. This is both because his book is published before the case is settled and because Macmillan, the publisher, asked for a substantial rewrite.

Even so, what emerges is a serious examination not just of the claims against McDonald'sóon everything from waste recycling programmes and a burger's nutritional value to the company's marketing methods, animal welfare and what precisely constitutes a rainforestóbut also of a particular brand of Amencan corporate culture and the iniquitous operation of British libel law.

Whoever wins the case, the defendants' message about McDonald's has spread far and wide. Two million copies of the original leaflet have been distributed in Britain since the case began, and there have been nine million visits to their Web site. Many journalists would sacrifice limbs for such distribution of our stories. But we blew it.

McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial by John Vidal, Macmillan, (£15.99, ISBN 0 333 69461 9)


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