At McLibel trial headquarters in London, England, preparations for Victory Day are well under way. In the next two weeks, the judge is expected
to hand down a verdict in McDonald's libel trial against two British environmentalists.
Win or lose, community activists will celebrate the end of the mammoth trial by staging protests at hundreds of McDonald's outlets across the United Kingdom, putting a new spin on the chain's latest slogan:
The protesters will be distributing a pamphlet titled What's Wrong With McDonald's, a variation of the document that sparked McLibel, the longest trial in British history. The pamphlet was first published in the mid-1980s by London Greenpeace and it attacked the fast food giant on every front, including nutrition, waste creation and disposal, animal rights, and working conditions.
Using a British libel law that puts the burden of proof entirely on the defendant, McDonald's launched a suit against Greenpeace members Helen Steel, Dave Morris and several others for the allegations in the pamphlet. Since libel defendants are not eligible for legal aid and court cases are long and costly, most activists back down when they get the first lawyer's letter, regardless of whether or not they can defend their statements.
Steel and Morris didn't back down. They represented themselves in court and over the course of the 313-day trial calling 180 witnesses, the defendants turned the tables on McDonald's and put the world's largest food retailer on the defensive. "They declared war on me and Helen and we decided to pick up the gauntlet,'' Morris said on the phone from London.
Today, victory is being declared in McLibel because rather than stemming the flow of criticism, the trial has opened the floodgates. Steel and Morris meticulously elaborated on every one of the pamphlet's claims, with the help of nutritional and environment experts and scientific studies.
Witnesses spanned the spectrum from Edward Oakley, senior vice president of McDonalds U.K., to Sarah Inglis, the 17-year-old employee who tried to unionize McDonald's in Orangeville, Ont. The company faced dozens of humiliating moments as the court heard stories of food poisoning, failure to pay legal overtime, bogus recycling claims, and, most damning of all, corporate spies sent to infiltrate the ranks of London Greenpeace.
The original pamphlet, meanwhile, has gathered the cachet of a collector's item - 2 million copies have been distributed in the U.K. alone. Adding more fuel to the movement, Macmillan has just published a book about the trial (McLibel: Burger Culture On Trial by John Vidal), a documentary has been produced, and a made-for-TV drama is scheduled to air in Britain after the verdict.
Most damaging of all to the multinational is the life the trial has taken on in cyberspace. "We had so much information about McDonald's, we thought we should start a library," Morris says. With this in mind, a group of Internet activists launched a McSpotlight Web page ( http://www.McSpotlight.org/), catapulting London's grassroots anti-McDonald's movement into an arena as global as the one in which its multinational opponent operates.
The site not only has the controversial pamphlet on-line, it contains the transcript of the McLibel trial, and offers a debating room where McDonald's workers exchange horror stories about McWork under the Golden Arches. The site, by far the most exciting use of the medium to date, has been accessed around 9 million times.
Ben, one of the McSpotlight organizers, explains that "this is media that doesn't require campaigners to jump through hoops doing publicity stunts or depend on the good will of an editor to get their message across." It is also less vulnerable to libel suits than more traditional media. Ben explains that the site is purposefully "disorganized and decentralized" with identical "mirror sites" in various counties. That means that if a server carrying McSpotlight in one country is targeted by McDonald's lawyers, it will still be available around the world from the other servers.
"The trial has shown McDonald's complete failure to shut people up," Morris says. "People have become more outraged than ever before because now the company is seen as a bully."
The momentum of McLibel clearly speaks to the fact that McDonald's is more than a restaurant chain, it's a powerful symbol of plastic globo-culture. The company is the very essence of McWorld, the already here future where multinationals not only steamroll over local cultures, they stifle debate about their impact on our communities, our health and our environment. Bottomless resources mean endless supplies of one-way ad campaigns and the means to use libel and trademark laws to trip up and gag their critics.
Whenever a renegade voice breaks through the shrink-wrapped seal of these franchised dreams, it is a victory indeed.