Slapps and pickles: weighing up the rights and wrongs of the McLibel trial
In September l990, McDonald's sued Dave Morris and Helen Stead tor libel. They hac distributed a factsheet, "What's Wrong With McDonald's?" outside restaurants. Nearly four years later, the trial itself began. Thirty months on — 313 days of court time — it ended. Judgment is awaited; appeals could follow. Fast food, slow justice: an irresistible combination. Guardian journalist John Vidal, impatient with the whole process, pre-empts the judge with a judgment of his own. It is adverse to McDonald's. Morris and Steel are the heroes of this book. They contribute a closing chapter; a publisher's press release advises that "Dave Morris is available for a limited number of interviews". By contrast, McDonald's asked to comment by Vidal, will say nothing.
The McLibel trial broke records and conformed to expectations. The longest trial in English history it was also representative of the legal system — its delays, its opacities, its rigours. Both unique and typical, then, it prompts Vidal to some familiar reflections on the need for legal reform, supported by inevitable references to Bleak House. His book is not just a judgment on the ease, it's also a judgment on the legal process, and on the laws of defamation. It is broader than any judicial assessment, taking into account background facts, political and social contexts — that whole realm of the legally inadmissible which is journalism's special territory. The book is also a judgment on the culture of multinationals.
So, how convincing is that judgment? Vidal is probably right about McDonald's itself. But he then treats the company as representative of global business as such, what he calls "McWorld". McDonald's becomes in this analysis a synecdoche for everything that is most vicious in the ideology and practice of modern capitalism: the destruction of Chilean democracy, the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Thus Vidal: "McDonald's is not remotely linked uith Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni but the opposition to Shell and to McDonald's is similar and telling." This is a little troubling. Vidal wants to make the McLibel case doubly representative: the trial topical of the worst aspects of civil justice, the plaintiffs topical of the w orst aspects of economic injustice.
Thc case against our defamation law is only sketchily made. It has two distinct, and not entirely consistent, themes. The first is reformist, the second abolitionist. The reformist says: there ought to be legal aid for defamation to ensure that defendants at least (but presumably also plaintiffs) can meet their adversaries on equal terms. The practices and procedures of this branch of the law are very complicated and ought to be simplified. Trials oughtn't to take so long; juries should not be (or not be so readily) excluded, and so on.
While the abolitionist case is more difficult, it's easy to see that defamation law should not be (mis)used to silence political opposition. Vidal shows how corporations, on the defensive against pressure groups, pursue "SLAPPs(Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). ere, litigation is an engine of oppression, usually without any intention of actually taking cases to trial, and has the sole object of stifling dissent. And while, of course, misuse of any particular law is not in itself an objection to that law, when misuse is persistent and widespread, suspicion, at least, about it is warranted. There probably was a "SLAPP" dimension to the McLibel case. But that's not the whole story. Vidal thinks that, independently of this, McDonald's was wrong to sue because the litigation amounted to an attempt at censorship. He goes too far when he observes to McDonald s UK Head of PR that his "silence could be construed as censoring debate".
Steel and Morris want to tell the truth about McDonald's; the company insists that this "truth" consists of damaging untruths. Shouldn't the State provide a forum for the adjudication of this dispute? If, in the course of this review, I were to attack Vidal s integrity and competence as a journalist (and the Guardian were foolish enough to publish the attack), wouldn't he be right to sue me? Most people accept that there should be some limits on freedom of speech—to inhibit incitements to violence, to protect religious susceptibilities, to safeguard reputation. But, to what extent, and with what exceptions? These are hard, important questions. It's a shame that nowhere in his entertaining and informative book does Vidal address them.
McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial by John Vidal 326pp, Macmillan, £15.99