Big Mac versus small fry

Olaf Furniss

Escape #2, Jan/Feb 97; UK

The longest libel case in
British history rumbles on,
with McDonald's taking on the environmentalists.

WHEN MCDONALD'S DECIDED TO SUE environmentalists Helen Steel and Dave Morris for distributing a leaflet, it appears that they bit off more than they could chew. The trial, which began in June 1994, has become the longest in British history and looks set to continue until spring next year.

The fast-food giant, which seems about as hungry for a bit of court action as the late Robert Maxwell, is said to estimated to have notched up a legal bill running into millions of pounds. And because neither Helen nor Dave have any money to speak of, there is no chance of the company ever recouping the costs.

McDonald’s decided to take legal action to protect its reputation in the face of numerous allegations made in a leaflet which included claims that the company was responsible for destruction of rain forests, that its food was linked to cancer and heart disease, and that it exploited its staff. The leaflet also claimed that McDonald’s advertising exploited children, a claim which was supported by a statement for the defence from non other than Geoffrey Guiliano, the actor who used to play the part of Ronald McDonald.

In the absence of funds to match McDonald’s’ $29.9 billion annual revenue, Helen and Dave are defending themselves. But they have still managed to hold their own in court. In cross examination of company witnesses, they got McDonald’s Vice President of marketing to say that Coca-Cola is nutritious because it contains water. The trial also appears to have unleashed a worldwide backlash against McDonald’s.

Nevertheless, McDonald’s spokesman Mike Love remains unrepentant over the mounting legal bill or the length of the trial: “It’s not our intention to put a figure on it, we don’t consider that to be the real issue.

“What we are concerned about is that the serious allegations made are challenged and that the truth is known. One of the problems with this sort of situation is that when people repeat things long enough other people start believing them in good faith,” he says, paraphrasing a well-known German propaganda minister.

Love believes that it is premature to talk of appeals in the unlikely event that McDonald’s lose their case on any of the 32 alleged libels. But should the ‘McLibel Two’ succeed in their defence, the litigation looks set to go on. The pair allege they were libelled by a McDonald’s press statement issued at the beginning of the trial, and have filed a countersuit against the multinational.

Should this suit go ahead, it might not be the only court case to follow the ‘McLibel’ trial. In the wake of a Scottish woman recently being threatened with legal action if she refused to change the name of her cafe from McMunchies, Aberdonian Ronald McDonald, 61, considered taking legal action to protect his good name.

“McDonald’s didn’t come to me when they set up their first restaurant and ask if they could use our name. Perhaps I should be getting in touch with them and extracting royalties,” he said.

And no sooner had the original Ronald McDonald appeared in the press, when Lord Godfery McDonald, the bona fide chief of the clan, said he was also considering legal action.

If these threats are carried out, the hamburger chain might soon lose its appetite for litigation.

The case continues.

– Olaf Furniss

10 McDonald's trademarks

 1 Hamburger University
 2 Good Jobs for Good People
 3 You deserve your break today
 4 Mac Attack
 5 Royal
 6 Healthy Growing Up
 7 McDonald's Means Opportunity
 8 Have you had your break today?
 9 What's on your plate
10 Twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettuce

'Aberdonian Ronald McDonald,
61, considered taking legal
action to protect his good name'


The McSpotlight site
claims to sort the
truth from the lies...

What is McSpotlight?

"People can come there and
decided for themselves
who is right and who is wrong."

Brian, McSpotlight

A tiny room where a dog tries to stick its snout into your nads before you can even get your jacket off does not conjure up images of Mission Control of a massive website, McSpotlight, which has been irritating McDonald’s since February. Yet from this secret location in a North London flat, a group of activists have been charting the McLibel case and attracting almost as many hits as the site where Pamela Anderson tucks into Tommy Lee’s sausage.

“For a while, McDonald’s were our number one customer,” explains Brian, who, along with fellow McSpotlight members Charles and David, finds space amid the mountain of computers. “In the first week they [McDonald’s] had accessed the site hundreds of times. You can see who has visited your site, and we tracked it down to McDonald’s, who’d visited every page on the site in the first week,” adds David.

“The McLibel trial had been going on for quite a long time, and there was masses of information coming out which revealed some real good dirt on McDonald’s. But it was just not getting out, because the traditional media are all very scared and worried that they’re going to get sued for libel.”

After weeks of work, the group got enough like-minded people together, but almost failed to meet their launch date when the necessary mobile phone, laptop and Nokia data card they’d been promised failed to materialise. But at the last minute the day was saved when a mysterious man with a white beard and a large brimmed hat appeared with the goods.

“When I tried to phone him to thank him, the number I’d first contacted him on turned out to be a telephone box,” says Charles. “Now he’s known as the laptop fairy. He came along, lent us the equipment, and disappeared.”

To ensure the well-being of the site, McSpotlight’s main server is housed by a sympathetic Internet Service Provider in Holland with experience in taking on the well-heeled Church of Scientology. With mirror sites in the USA, New Zealand and Finland, it’s unlikely McDonald’s can put a stop to it.

“Any upfront attempt at destroying the site would only benefit us because of the publicity, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t try something a bit sneaky and underhand,” says Charles, who along with the others admits that the thought of being sued has crossed his mind.

McDonald’s spokesman Mike Love says legal action in foreign courts is not something that’s been considered. “I’m not aware of any action that could be taken, regardless of where the servers are. The allegations made are the subject of a High Court action which reaches its conclusion soon, so I think we would wait for a judgement before we consider any other action.”

Despite reproducing the allegedly libellous leaflet on the McSpotlight site, Dave is adamant that all the content is above board. “We keep all the information as factual and accurate as possible. We don’t put up stories inciting people to commit acts of violence or lie about McDonald’s’ business practices,” he explains.

“People can come there and decide for themselves who is right and who is wrong. It’s not like we’re going to impose anything on them. We’re saying judge for yourself,” adds Brian.

The McSpotlight site aims
to encourage debate
about McDonald's practices:
"We keep all the information as factual as possible. We don't put up stories inciting people to commit acts of violence or lie about McDonald's business practices."

To encourage discussion, the site has a special debating room; although this has been a source of confusion for some hamburger eaters in the States who appear to think that it is part of the official McDonald’s site.

The group also likes to incorporate humour into their action. The website features a gallery of billboard ads which have acquired the McSpotlight Web address. And the group recently got permission to video a licensing committee meeting of Camden Council where McDonald’s were applying for a licence extension. Permission to film was granted on condition that a copy of the video was made available to Camden Council and McDonald’s. “We sent them an invoice for the video,” laughs Charles.

“It was actually supposed to go to the solicitors, but we thought it would be really funny if we could get a cheque from McDonald’s. We never thought they would actually go for it. So now we’ve got a cheque from McDonald’s to McSpotlight signed by Paul Preston, who’s the president of UK McDonald’s.”

The group hope to provide a blueprint for similar action around the country, and also aim to focus on other multinationals they believe are unethical. But to fund their activities, the site features a merchandise section entitled Money. “I think we should get sponsorship from the phone companies, because we alone have spent £400 on the phone in three months. If you put together all the people around the world who have been logging into our site it’s staggering – phone companies make more money than McDonald’s,” says Charles.

Internet Listings - McSpotlight
Keeping the multinational bastards in check, McSpotlight brings you the lowdown on all the bits McDonald's would rather not talk about. Things are coming to a head in the McDonald's libel case against London Greenpeace, so check this out for the latest info.

'McSpotlight brings you the lowdown on all the bits McDonald's would rather not talk about.

Verdict   [][][][][]| |      B+ Very well done

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