Produced by Dennis Woolf - Directed by James Cellan Jones
Commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK, this epic tale spans two night and more than three hours of television. Key evidence from the two and a half year long McLibel trial will be present in a series of reconstructions of what actually happened in Court 35.
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SHEENA McDONALD presents a court room reconstruction of the longest libel trial in British legal history. Over two nights and more than three hours of television, McLibel! presents key evidence from the two and a half year long trial, in which McDonald's sued two environmental campaigners over leaflets they were distributing critical of its policies and practices.
The trial became a David and Goliath battle between one of the world's largest corporations and two London anarchists - a battle of jeans and jumpers against wigs and gowns. McDonald's' legal team was lead by top libel lawyer Richard Rampton QC (MALCOLM SINCLAIR), whose daily fee is rumoured to be £2,000 a day. Dave Morris (PETER-HUGO DALY), an unemployed postman and single father living on income support, and Helen Steel (JULIA SAWALHA), a former gardener who during the trial worked as a part-time barmaid, defended themselves.
Originally expected to last between four and six weeks, the trial went on for 313 sitting days. It began in June 1994 and the final day of evidence was in December 1996. Mr Justice Bell (CLIVE MERRISON) will not give his judgement until next month at the earliest.
Although there was sporadic media interest in the trial - Auberon Waugh described it as "the best free entertainment in town" - no newspaper or other publication felt able to devote sufficient resources to cover it on a daily basis. This weekend's two programmes are an attempt to present the fullest possible synopsis of this extraordinary trial in a form that is both fair and accurate - and accessible to the ordinary viewer.
At issue in the case was a leaflet, published by London Greenpeace (an organisation entirely separate from Greenpeace International), which alleged - using phrases like 'McCancer', 'McDisease' and 'McDeadly' - that McDonald's sold food linked with heart disease and cancer, caused food poisoning, exploited staff, tortured animals reared for slaughter and destroyed rainforests to raise beef. All these allegations were strongly denied by McDonald's, which accused its authors of lying.
In September 1990 writs were issued by McDonald's against five members of London Greenpeace. Three of them apologised in court and withdrew all the allegations - although one of them said at the trial that he only apologised after discovering that legal aid is not available to defend libel actions and he feared the cost of defending a case would make him bankrupt.
Steel and Morris refused to apologise - and almost four years later began the 'McLibel trial', as it became known. In spite of protestations from Steel and Morris, the judge decided that the case was too complex for a jury and decided to hear it sitting alone. Each of the allegations in the leaflet were examined in enormous detail, with the two sides taking strongly opposing views, calling expert witnesses in their aid and cross-examining them exhaustively.
So Steel and Morris argued that McDonald's food can be linked to heart disease and cancer - McDonald's said that they produced perfectly healthy meals. Witnesses called by Steel and Morris described suffering by animals before and at the time of their slaughter - McDonald's categorically denied this, saying "barbaric methods have no place with McDonald's". Food scientists argued whether the company's methods were bound to produce well-cooked meat - or whether some burgers are likely to be only partly cooked, thus carrying a risk of food poisoning. There was a long disagreement about what actually took place in a McDonald's 'Store of the Year' - did staff have to cut corners to meet revenue targets and at one stage have to work in a kitchen awash with sewage, or was it a well-run store whose problems with drainage were dealt with promptly and never compromised kitchen hygiene? And there were similar wide-ranging conflicts about staff conditions, what influence if any the company had on the destruction of South American rainforests and whether Steel and Morris had even distributed the leaflet at the centre of the case.
The programmes include a number of lighter and even surreal moments from the trial. Paul Preston (ANGUS MacINNES), President and Chief Executive Officer of McDonald's in the UK is described by his own lawyer as "the Big Mac in this country". A private detectives employed by McDonald's to infiltrate London Greenpeace went to a meeting of six people, only to discover later that one of the other five was also a McDonald's infiltrator. Helen Steel is brought face to face with the complexities of the English legal system when she tells the judge "I would have thought you made an admission because it is the truth", only to be told by him "No, I am sorry, life is not quite as simple as that".
The form which McLibel! takes is a series of reconstructions of what actually happened in Court Number 35 in the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, based on the full transcripts of the trial and played out in a specially built replica set. The programmes are introduced by Sheena McDonald, who also provides background information and links each scene to the next.
McLibel! is produced by Dennis Woolf, who has specialised in the detailed reconstruction of court cases and other hearings. He was a major contributor to last year's award-winning Scott of the Arms Antics, about the Scott report into arms for Iraq, recreating key moments of that lengthy inquiry. James Cellan Jones' many television credits include Fortunes of War, The Forsyte Saga, The Gravy Train Goes East and Harnessing Peacocks.
Producer : Dennis Woolf