McDonald's vs Commonsense

The Independent, June 29, 1995

They never stood a chance. One year into the epic libel action brought by the burger chain McDonald's against two environmentalists, the odds are as heavily stacked as ever. The giant multinational has Richard Rampton QC and an army of wigs on its side, while the unemployed activists Dave Morris and Helen Steel are forced to defend themselves. It can only be a matter of time before the inevitable happens - and McDonald's is forced to beat an ignominious retreat. For although it may eventually win the case, it is bound to emerge with its image badly tarnished.

Not many people, outside the company itself, want McDonald's to succeed. There is a long and lively tradition in this country of robust comment by individuals and pressure groups about the powerful and wealthy; so the use of the libel laws to prevent leaflets from being handed out seems oppressive. After all, the Meat Marketing Board never felt it necessary to injunct that famous old chap in the sandwich boards who used to parade Oxford Street proclaiming that animal protein caused lust and violence. They trusted shoppers to decide for themselves whether eating that ham roll might not lead on to other things.

McDonald's, whose triumphal M spans the known world, decided on a firmer line. Steel and Morris were part of a small group who were arguing that McDonald's was despoiling the environment, sold cancer-inducing food that was not nutritious, treated employees badly and unethically targeted its advertising at children. The company understandably felt they were damaging and had to be countered.

Although the burger giant chose to confront the problem with writs, it could have decided to do it by argument. The resources McDonald's has available for public relations and promotions dwarfs the total budgets of many a small nation. So would it have been beyond it to enter a public debate in which it met its critics and answered them on every point? Could it not have handed out leaflets of its own, or devoted some of its TV ad time to dealing with the issues?

The trouble is that this is not how some companies see their relationship with us; we are passive consumers of product and image. A discussion about diet, waste or employment practice might just detract from the rosy, uncomplicated message they want us to absorb. The fact that the issue is before the courts has also been counter-productive in that it has inhibited the freedom with which McDonald's feels it can address the campaigners' charges in public debate. Elsewhere, in Australia for example, McDonalds' approach seems to have been to refuse almost all interviews with TV, radio or newspapers, and to instruct staff to stick to prepared statements.

Such an attitude is self-defeating and out of date. As the Shell saga showed, it is now impossible to treat campaigners as though they are criminal lunatics and public opinion as something to be bought through parliamentary lobbying. There is an increasing public demand that large and powerful companies should take our sensibilities into account when making decisions or framing strategies. McDonald's should recognise this, drop its libel action and begin the debate.

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