Biting back at the Big Mac

Libby Purves

The Times (UK); 3 May 1997

In any war against public enlightenment, the ideal weapons are confusion and boredom. 'The best hope hr a government embarrassed hy a Scott inquiry or a corporatim1 stung by criticism is to build a vast pile of legal paperwork anti hit e in it, hoping that the public will be too bored to dig through and peer at your blemishes. When this strategy is defeated, it is usually by a journalist, some patient nitpicker who rarely gets rich because even the reports of such paper-tombs are not easy reading.

McLibel, for instance. is a painstaking job by The Guardian's John Vidal; but in my dreams it would be half the length, a racy, hilarious tale of two right-on urban warriors in frayed pullies who took on the global might of the McDonald's burger chain in a fussy British courtroom. After the final verdict, I hope it will be a comic musical, with ba-boom! noises when the McLibel Two trick an opposition expert medical witness into agreeing with a passage of the alleged libel, a lawyers' can-can led by Ronald McDonald, a soprano vegetarian emoting about the evils of indoctrinating the young while leting slip that she has personally lectured 30,000 schoolchildren on vegetarianism, and a chorus of porkers for the Great Pig Blunder Rap, when it turns out that the expert animal welfare witness has only seen the outdoor pig housing and missed the dark, crowded bit.

Even told seriously, the story compels. A decade back, London Greenpeace produced a leaflet criticising McDonald's food, behaviour and very existence: the kind of thing which in America would be normal free speech. McDonald's decided to use the British libel laws to crush these cheeky kids, and issued writs. Two members - a single father and a woman activist in her early twenties refused to apologise and became litigants in person, with no experience or money. They had a free legal friend, though, and a stroke of luck: when McDonald's rashly put out its own leaflet accusing them of "lies", they nimbly counterclaimed and forced the burden of proof back on to the company.

In the ensuing four years, McDonald's must have bitterly regretted getting involved in this Cocklecarrot farce. It became a public trial of issues: diet, advertising, deforestation, workers' rights, the meat industry corporate globalisation, the criminalisation of environmental protest and capitalism in general. There will he no winner. McDonald's keeps selling meals hut has accidentally spawned an unslayable monster of negative publicity, led by the McSpotlight Web site, a treasury of dissent and embarrassing details.

And all hecause a huge Americal1 corporation could not take a hit of scruffily printed Greenpeace rant and underestimated the patient even-handedness of a British judge and the stroppy, scattergun idealism of unwaged London Greenpeacers. If it was not that our libel laws the orighial bait, it would all make you proud to be British.

It also, I regret to say, gave me a craving for a Big Mac.


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