'McLibel' made meaningful

Bangkok Post; 26th July 1997

The court case that will go down in the annals of British jurisprudence as 'McLibel' ended with a whimper last week, though it deserves more attention than it received.

The case had been dragging on for so long - a record 361 days of hearings over three years - that casual observers had long since tuned out. In the end it generated 60,000 pages of testimony, and the judge's ruling alone covered 800 pages.

The result: the court ruled that an unemployed postman and a part-time barmaid had libelled McDonald's by passing out pamphlets that accused the fast-food colossus of everything short of genocide. Most of us stop at saying that Big Macs taste like card board.

The judge awarded McDonald's the equivalent of 2.5m baht in damages, which it can never hope to collect, the defendants being veterans of the generous British dole queue.

McDonald's was said to have spent 420m baht defending itself; the two environmentalists served as their own lawyers.

It would be easy to dismiss the defendants as a pair of weedy malcontents who should be grateful that they live in a country where they can pursue their crusades without having to worry about such demeaning things as making a living.

It would be equally facile to characterise McDonald's as a paranoid multinational willing to spend millions on hired legal guns to bully its opponents into submission.

Some would wonder whether the British legal system needs to be examined for flaws that would allow such a seemingly trivial complaint to get so far out of hand.

But our own view is that the judge, having decided that there were important issues worth airing, decided that each side deserved its day in court. And a few days after that.

The defendants claimed, among other things, that McDonald's was the prime mover in a campaign to lay waste to millions of hectares of rainforest to satisfy insatiable global demand for beef.

They said McDonald's food led to heart disease and cancer, that the company practised cruelty to animals, its advertising exploited children, and its wages and working conditions exploited young people and led to distortions in the labour market.

Judge Roger Bell decided that all these claims were worth examining in painstaking detail. Throughout the trial both sides were treated with dignity.

He found McDonald's not entirely blameless when it came to labour issues and the treatment of animals, but on the whole he agreed that other irresponsible and outlandish statements had damaged the company's reputation. So what are we to make of all this? In many countries, the ability of the average citizen - environmentalists or others - to gain such sweeping access to the apparatus of the state to pursue a dispute, however Quixotic, is still seen as a luxury.

This crossed our mind when we saw how the citizens of Thailand, asking legitimate questions about the Yadana gas pipeline, have been treated.

Their request to see details of the contract signed by the Petroleum Authority of Thailand and the Burmese junta was met with a shockingly patronising response.

A Kanchanaburi provincial official merely waved the document before a meeting and told his questioners that it was really too complicated and technical for them to understand.

"Why, some of it was even in English," the official huffed. "No, you can't make photocopies. You're welcome to read it, if you're accompanied by a lawyer."

The issue is not whether the Yadana pipeline is a good thing, or whether the PTT made a deal with the devil (though its public-relations sense can be said to be terrible). The issue is whether the system allows the public to obtain answers to their questions.

In Britain, it is possible to know more than one would ever want to know about the contents of a Big Mac. In Thailand, could an average person get even one day in court with the PTT?

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