The verdict on the David and Goliath court case of the decade, McDonalds
suing two London anarchists for libel, is expected in June.
When it is delivered it will mark the end of the longest trial in British history and a historical lesson for the corporate world in the power of the Internet.
It all began in 1990 when McDonald's claimed that a leaflet titled "What's Wrong With McDonald's? - Everything They Don't Want You To Know" libelled the company. Distributed by a group of activists called London Greenpeace (no relationship to Greenpeace International), the leaflet criticised McDonalds on areas of environment, recycling, nutrition, advertising, animal welfare and employment practises.
Refused legal aid Helen Steel, a 31 year old part-time bar worker and Dave Morris, a 42 year old single parent, were forced to defend themselves with the help of volunteers and informal legal advice. Faced against McDonald's seven thousand pounds a day legal team, with little or no knowledge of the UK's notoriously complex libel laws, most reports suggest the pair have done admirably well.
McDonalds are used to getting their way in such cases by issuing stiff legal threats which force most to back down. By taking the giant on, Steel and Morris have garnered more support and publicity than McDonalds could ever have imagined in their worst nightmares and what was worse, their high profile and expensive PR efforts to control the damage were ineffective. Negative news stories kept appearing and new information was widely distributed and picked up by global news services.
The reason? A support site on the Web sprang up to raise awareness of the actions of multinationals. The McSpotlight Web site has had thousands of visitors following the case looking at 21,000 files including updates on the case, copies of trial materials and witness accounts and sending donations to support the defendents.
Even now, if McDonald's wins the case, the offending leaflet is still available online along with a number of other leaflets in various formats, languages and page sizes, ready for the photocopier. Thousands have already pledged to do just that, with a mass leaflet campaign planned for the "Victory Day of Action" when the verdict is announced, regardless of the result.
McDonald's have fought fire with fire offering an ultra-glossy site themselves which gives their side of the story. The site does not mention the case or any criticisms of their actions. Information on the site covers nutrition, environment, corporate information, merchandise and an entertainment site for kids.
The entire site is divided into the kids and adult views, essentially two separate sites, making it a major investment in time and money to both set up and keep up-to-date.
McDonald's have long been a target for environmentalists and animal rights campaigners, because they use large amounts of packaging and are one of the main promoters of beef products. To counter such claims, McDonalds offer an extensive file of environmental information with energy saving outlets, reduced packaging and use of recycled materials. Practical advice is given on what we can do to help the environment, including the rather damning statement; "To reduce trash, buy, and encourage your parents to buy, products with less packaging."
McSpotlight aims to debunk the marketing hype with a clever tour of the official site, using quotes from the case to underline their points. The tour uses frames to show the McDonald's page, with the McSpotlight comments down the left-hand side allowing you to "See their site from the safety of McSpotlight."
The site asks readers to "Judge for yourself" whether McDonald's is guilty
or not. With an astonishing array of evidence, anyone who bothers to read
the material will certainly find a wealth of information the company would
probably rather you don't know.
Once you have made up your mind, McSpotlight's Campaign section provides practical advice on how to lobby against multinationals, help out with the case and site and find others in your area fighting against large corporations. For example, in February this year, a group of residents in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney succeeded in stopping the construction of a proposed McDonald's restaurant.
If McDonald's or any other government or multinational company managed to have the Netherlands-based site closed down, copies exist all over the world with volunteers ready to spring into action the moment such a closure occurs. A copy of the entire text is available to further reduce the risk of censorship and ensure future availability of the information.
McSpotlight is not limited to McDonalds but also provides information on other multinationals in the baby milk, cosmetic, oil, pharmaceutical, soft drink and tobacco industries.
The harsh facts for multi-nationals facing public criticism is that the Internet has changed the way activists campaign. In the past their claims have been subject to corporation-oriented libel laws which place the onus of proof upon the defendants. On the Internet, censorship of information can be made quite difficult. This favours small activists fighting corporate giants in court, and is one of the difficulties involved in validating any information found online.
The corporate giants are still trying to figure out how to best deal with online criticism. Legal threats and writs are not an effective deterrent when national borders and personal identities dissolve. The salient countering of McDonald's web-based promotional efforts by the McSpotlight site indicates how complex the issues are.
Clearly, the Internet still has the power to level the playing field when it comes to delivery of information. Just as the activists have done already, giant corporations are going to have to learn to think outside the square.
The Australian McSpotlight mirror is available at mcspotlight.va.com.au