The BunFight That Won't Go Away

'McLibel by John Vidal' reviewed by Val Hennessy

Daily Mail; 26th April 1997

WE BRITISH stand up for what we think is right. We believe in fair play and in defending the underdog. For this reason we take off our hats to the two impecunious community campaigners who have been doggedly fighting a three-year libel battle against the multi-billion-dollar burger giant McDonald's.

The facts of the case are clearly set out in John Vidal's excellent— and often hilarious - examination of the epic court clash which he describes as a cross between a 'Greek tragedy and a Carry On (and on and on) film'.

In the British corner we have Helen Steel (part-time bar worker) and Dave Morris (ex-postman). In the early Nineties they stood outside the Trafalgar Square McDonald's handing out anti-fast-food leaflets.

Months later they helped distribute a factsheet headed What's Wrong With McDonald's, which contained the words 'McTorture', 'McCancer', 'McMurder', 'McGreedy' and 'McProfits' and took satirical swipes at the burger sploshed with ketchup and lettuce squashed into a bun which has conquered the globe.

In the American corner we have McDonald's, declaring that it 'has been brought into public scandal, odium and contempt' and that it has 'no option' but to wield the legal sword. Talk about taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

But the nut refuses to crack. Helen and Dave stand by their allegations that McDonald's misleads the public about the nutritional value of its product, destroys rainforests, causes evictions of small farmers in the Third World, sells food high in sugar and salt, targets most of its advertising at children, is responsible for the inhumane treatment of animals, is interested only in cheap labour, and so forth.

The campaigners, who earn at most £7,500 a year between them, are ineligible for legal aid and have been forced to defend themselves struggling against some of the country's top libel lawyers.

THE case, like the interminable case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce in Charles Dickens's Bleak House has become the longest in British history and is, as Vidal observes, described by one QC es 'tine trial of' the century.

As the exhausted defendants stuck to their guns, a McLibel Support Campaign swung into action - lawyers, nutritionists, mothers, former McDonald's employees all weighing in with support.

The ultimate Nineties campaign tool, a web site (called McSpotlight), was created on the Internet by a female computer freak. With her Independent McInformation network of 60 volunteers from a dozen countries, she assembled 2,500 files on McDonald's and can print the infamous What's Wrong With McDonald's leaflet in a dozen languages at the touch of a button. Seven million people have so far accessed the site.

Vidal's book is packed with facts and statistics about the corporation, of which most of us were ignorant until the court case.

For example, 35 million McDonald's burgers are served each day, one hundred billion burgers have been served since 1955, one spud in every 12 grown in America is bought by the company, a new McDonald's opens every three hours, the McDonald's Golden. Arches have overtaken the crucifix as the world's most widely recognised symbol and 96 per cent of children polled recognised Ronald McDonald (the promo clown), only Santa Claus did better.

Further claims jump off the page and may make you think twice before ordering your McNuggets. The 27 million chickens used by McDonald's each year live in sheds with less than 12 square inches per bird and no daylight.".

Another astounding fact is McDonald's tactless Japanese launch in Hiroshima, of all places. On this occasion, the president of Japan's McDonald's declared: 'The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skin is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for 2,000 years. If we eat McDonald's hamburgers and French fries for a thousand years, we will become taller, our skin will become white and our hair will be blond.'

As the trial progressed it became clear that it represented a clash of two philosophies.

What was being defended were two opposing late 20th-century attitudes to profit, food, people, consumerism, animals and the environment. It is global burger culture vs international cultural diversity.

Helen and Dave are not just defending themselves against one of the world's most powerful corporations (which, it is said is paying a crack legal team about £6,000 a day) they are, amazingly, actually scoring points.

However, the slow torment of the prolonged, nit-picking proceedings has worn them down. They have sacrificed their private lives - the trial dominates their every waking moment. If they lose they could face bankruptcy, prison and the loss of all they possess. Life for them has become absolute McHell.

I sympathise with Helen, who took her bicycle to Scotland to escape from McDonald's and climbing Ben Lomond, met a man wearing a Flintstones McDonald's T-shirt stencilled with '90 billion people served.' As she says despairingly: 'I dunno, climb a mountain and there's still a reminder of them.'

Vidal's timely report enables us to judge the issues for ourselves and to hope, when the verdict's announced in June, that the law is not as McCrackers as it sometimes appears in this gripping book.

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