Power, corruption and fries

Michael Mansfield: reviews COUNTER CULTURE vs BURGER CULTURE by John Vidal

The Observer

The most significant point about this book written that it has been written at all. The McLibel Trial has received remarkably little publicity given its importance, and John Vidal has been one of the few journalists to accord it time and space. It is as if a cordon sanitaire has been placed around it by the media, who have been singularly lacking in the courage shown by Helen Steel and Dave Morris (the co-authors) to stand up to the threat of legal action by McDonald's. There are still many here in Britain, and even more in the United States, who have never heard of the trial, let alone the issues behind it.

It is unquestionably a landmark trial, not only because it is the longest in British history but also because it scrutinises the moral fabric of postwar Western society and the manner in which non-accountable multinational corporations exercise more power over our daily lives than individual domestic governments. In essence, it charts the demise of democracy in ways that have been insidious and imperceptible. It is ironic that even as the obvious barriers to democratic expression have been tumbling throughout Europe, they have been supplanted by a tangled web of capitalist enterprise with a clear objective of world domination.

The strands of that web, stretched out during the trial, are clearly and cogently defined and described in this book. All of them touch every minute of our waking lives: health and diet; nutrition; Third World poverty; environmental destruction, animal welfare (conditions of both life and death); human welfare (working conditions, both economic and physical); packaging, waste and advertising; state collusion and spying; and last, but by no means least, freedom and the right to free speech. These matters clearly illustrate the ambit that has not been encompassed by any other litigation and has not been coherently put on record in any other form. This is an essential part of current history and should be obligatory reading for all responsible citizens. When one considers that all of this has been mounted by two young people without the resources of a $24 billion per annum corporation, in fact without any Legal Aid, as none is available, and without an eminent team of lawyers to represent them throughout, this is no mean achievement. The book is both a tribute and a testimonial to their efforts on our behalf.

While a narrative of this kind can often be worthy but tedious, this particular work does not fall into that trap. It is careful in its analysis, assiduous in its attention to detail and compelling in its description of the personal sacrifice made by the many individuals who were prepared to stand up and be counted. Many of them entered the witness box, some as experts and others stood behind to provide support. It is important to know who Helen and Dave are, why they have been so persistent and, interestingly, how their different forms of humanitarianism fused, even though their underlying philosophies are different. Generally, of course, it might be easy to see them in the tradition of the Diggers, the Levellers and William Morris, but in a sense, they are very much more part of a latter-day movement that is increasingly gathering support across the generations, and which has as its main objective the preservation and resources, most recently exemplified by Swampy et al.

To some extent, Dave Morris sees societal change from without, whereas Helen Steel sees the change from within, but this argument may be scholastic and redundant, because at the end of the day there is a common cause which concerns the very nature of the planet we are going to bequeath to future generations. The particular judicial decision arising in their case is irrelevant, because the material that has been put in the public arena is so significant that it should provide a firm basis for discussion and decision on a wider scale.

The decision, when it arrives, may have immediate and obvious legal ramifications, but it is divested of communal authority by the denial of trial by jury, which had been requested by the defendants. This is particularly pertinent given Michael Howard's proposals to further limit the right to jury trial for defendants facing criminal charges. Without doubt it is the fairest and most democratic form of trial. Without doubt, it poses the greatest threat to both the actual and perceived reins of power held by the establishment. Decisions by juries over the centuries have consistently perturbed authority, light back to the famous trial of the Quakers led by William Penn where jurors at the Old Bailey were threatened with imprisonment if they did not convict as required by the judge. The only way the public can have faith generally in a judicial system in which there has been an increasing loss of confidence is to ensure that, at the core of that system, the public plays a part. The denial of jury trial in the McLibel case seems to have been made on the basis that the scientific issues at stake were the most important bearing in mind the plaintiff's business and that they were too complex for a jury to comprehend. It has been a constant refrain that members of the public are not competent to make judgments of a specialist nature. This is demeaning. Moreover, why should the plaintiff's business interest take precedence over the welfare of the public?

Chapter eight, entitled 'Harum, Scarum' is prefaced by a quotation from Isaac Asimov: 'The first law of dietetics seems to be; if it tastes good, it's bad for you.' It begins with a prophetic and poignant comment on recent events - Douglas Hogg read on! Mr Rampton, representing McDonald's, read extracts from the London Greenpeace fact sheet at the centre of this case, and highlighted this particular part of it: 'Meat is responsible for 70 per cent of all food poisoning incidents with chicken and minced meats (as used in burgers) being the worst offenders. When animals are slaughtered, meat can be contaminated with gut contents faeces and urine, leading to bacteriaI infection...' this is intriguing, given the Government's handling of, particularly, the E. Coli outbreak. It would appear that public health and safety in Britain's abattoirs has been seriously jeopardised by working practices and by the Government's desire to minimise, marginalise or deflect public anxiety through either suppressing or toning down information accumulated in 1995 by the Swan Report (which was produced prior to the deaths from E. Coli in Scotland).

Equally compelling by its relevance and impact on contemporary events is chapter 13, 'Spy versus Spy'. In one sense, the occurrences described simulate a Whitehall farce with McDonald's employing two separate private detective agencies (unbeknown to each other) called Kings and Bishops, who might have been better placed to play chess than games with people's lives. This trial revealed the tactics employed by major corporations to infiltrate organisations considered to be contrary to their economic interests and to do that via agencies with clear connections to the law enforcement agencies of the State. Sidney Nicholson, a McDonald's UK vice-president and head of security at one time, had worked in the Metropolitan Police for 20 years, and before that for the South African police. He conceded in evidence that the McDonald's security department emp1oyed many ex-policemen who had contacts in the force. He readily admitted that if he wanted to know something he would almost certainly make contact with the local Crimes Officer, the local CID Officer, the local collator. Additionally, it would appear that McDonald's had received advice on London Greenpeace from Special Branch. All of this has to be set against the current bipartisan political rush to circumvent constitutional rights and safeguards through the proposals encompassed by the Police Bill (otherwise known as bug and burgle). It was only a last-minute protest in the House of Lords that brought about amendments to restrict serious incursions by the police into daily organised political life. Earlier statutes such as the police and Public Order Act and the Security Services Act have already undermined freedoms of assembly and association.

Freedom of expression is crucial to the very existence of our democracy. This trial and this book squarely raise for our consideration whether we have now reached a stage in which it is impossible to engage in public debate about corporate activity without the risk of hraving to defend a five year legal action.

Where issues of wide public concern need to be properly debated, private industry should be in no better position than local authorities and government departments, who are not able to take up such matters in court. In the run-up to an election, it is compelling reading to recognise where real power lies and it is a statement to both their courage and tenacity that the two defendants were not seduced by attempts once the trial was under way to come to a settlement which might not incur any economic penalty but which would leave other critics unprotected in future. This has been a dramatically unselfish battle by David against Goliath.

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