Culture Jammers OF THE YEAR


by Jim Munroe; Spring 1996

Helen Steel and Dave Morris, corporate crimefighters, stand in front of the High Court in London on the first year anniversary of the McLibel Trial.

Recently, a Berkeley-based vegetarian organisation was threatened with a lawsuit for producing a T-shirt with the familiar arches and the words "McVegan: Billions and Billions Saved." But after sending out press releases, their legal problems disappeared faster than you can say "would you-like-fries-with-that?" It almost seems like the once-litigious multinational has gotten... well... timid?

You'd be jumpy, too, if the McLibel Two were on your case. The famous British trial is now the longest running civil case in the country's history. Dave Morris and Helen Steel were charged in 1990 by the restaurant chain for distributing a pamphlet McDonald's claimed was full of "lies" - accusing McDonald's of union breaking, environmental crimes, animal abuse and exploitation of children. It's quite an accomplished bit of counter-propaganda.

Many of the journalists interviewing Morris and Steel don't take the pamphlet itself very seriously. Some imply that the two are political opportunists, that the allegations aren't as important as the chance to drag McDonald's through the mud. In the Wall Street Journal article the sub-heading describes the trial as "lengthy but not terribly meaty" and contains lines like "They can hardly believe their luck." It paints the picture of the trial being something of a lark for the two activists, that since they're penniless they have nothing to lose.

"That's absolutely not true," said D Morris when contacted by Adbusters. After telling his son Charlie that he'd be in to read him a story in a minute, he elaborated. "We've lost five years of our lives. They are demanding costs and damages which could end up costing millions of pounds. One of their lines to the media is that they're not seeking costs and damages, but it's a complete lie. We put that to the judge and he said that as far as he's concerned the official documents and official position is that they are seeking costs and damages. If we lose we'll be declared bankrupt and then the state takes control of our finances. We'll get an amount to live, a bit less than welfare, until it's recognized that we're unable to pay them. That's usually after five or 10 years."

High stakes. Morris and Steel got into it with their eyes open, however. They were warned at the beginning that Britain's archaic libel laws left it up to them to prove their innocence, rather than McDonald's to prove their guilt. And not having enough money for a lawyer meant that they'd have to defend themselves. The three other activists charged at the same time, while giving their backing to Morris and Steel, decided to officially apologize for distributing the pamphlet and put their energy into other campaigns We don't want any hero worship or people thinking that we're special."

It might have been the McLibel Five. But it also might have been the McLibel One.

"Dave had loads of problems to sort out on the home front," recalled Steel. "When the other three said they were going to apologize, Dave said he would go with the flow because he knew he would not be able to take it on his own. But then Dave said that if I wanted to fight it, he would come in with me."

Once involved, Morris's persistence allowed him to collect 65 signed statements from around the world within a three week allotted time period. The prosecution was visibly surprised at the strength of the defense case.

But both are quick to downplay the individual parts they play. They see themselves not as champions for the various causes and issues addressed in the court case, but more as conduits through which alternative ideas can flow to the public. In fact, it's difficult to get anything other than facts about the case in interviews with them.

"We don't want any hero worship or people thinking that we re special," Morris explained. "Basically we're both activists who normally wouldn't want recognition or leadership or anything like that."

But beyond modesty there's a tactical reason to avoid getting personal in media relations. They know from experience that the mainstream organs tend to, as Steel puts it, "focus on the clothes we re wearing rather than the issues being discussed."

Steel herself doesn't shy away from the issues - she's been an activist for half of her 30 years. Her first activist action was at 15 during her school's open house, using a paper mache' calf in a cage to convince parents to sign a petition against the veal trade. Recently, so that the trial didn't consume every waking hour, she's been lending support to some striking workers in her community by being on the picket line as early as 5am. Talking about it, she places no emphasis on her personal involvement - she's not avoiding the question, she's just talking about the things that she considers more important.

In a sense, the duo have set themselves up as McDopplegangers: their own refusal of hero-image and dogged dissemination of the facts is the inverse of the multinational's image-based, substanceless persona.

The communiquŽ's that emerge from the McLibel Support Campaign office are so lacking in personal details that someone unfamiliar with the case would assume that the defendants have high-powered lawyers on their side. How else could they be getting such damning quotes from the slick executives of McDonald's UK?

By stumbling through the legal mumbo jumbo, calling on well-informed people and keeping at it. The lack of paid and polished professionals has, if any thing, added another dimension to the case. Courts and mass media, usually used by those in power to silence their critics, can indeed be turned around to put the powerfal themselves on trial. They show by example that people, average people, can throw a spanner in the works without specialized knowledge or training-just an alternative viewpoint and resolve.

We declare Dave Morris and Helen Steel to be the Culture Trial McNuggets

Straight from the transcripts of the trial these quotes are propagated by the hardworking support groups in the USA and the UK to do ferocious battle with the ads and PR of McDonald's Corp. May the best meme win!

According to Tim Lobstein, co-director of the Food Commission, McDonald's claim that its food can be eaten as part of a balanced diet was "meaningless." "You could eat a roll of sellotape as part of a balanced diet," he said.

Testimony about marketing strategies included an excerpt of Beyond the Arches, a McDonald's authorized book published in 1987. It relates how in Japan the chain faced "a fundamental challenge of establishing beef as a common food." Their president, Den Fujita, stated "the reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but rice for two thousand years. If we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years we will become taller, our skin become white and our hair blonde."

Edward Oakley, senior vice president of McDonald's UK, said he had a responsibility for animal welfare. He is quoted as calling battery cages, in which five chickens are kept, as "pretty comfortable."

For more information or to send donations:

McLibel Support Campaign (USA), P0 Box 62, Craftsbury, VT05826-0062 USA

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