The Suppression Of The Two McLibel Films


- the role of the media, and why the films must be widely shown.

July 29th 1998

Channel 4's 1997 'McLibel' dramatisation - distribution suppressed by lawyers

- In May 1997, a month before the McLibel verdict, Channel 4 TV broadcast a dramatised reconstruction of in-court highlights of the McLibel trial - it was three and a quarter hours long, and shown over 2 nights to great critical and popular acclaim. The reconstructed courtroom was uncanny in its resemblance to court 35 in the High Court where the trial ran for almost 3 years, and the selection of extracts from witness testimony gave the public some idea of what the issues were actually about that were being argued over during the case. In that last respect, apart maybe from one lengthy article in the UK Guardian in January 1995, it was probably the ONLY production/article that was published/broadcast throughout the whole case which bothered to actually inform the public about what was going on in the courtroom and what it was all about. The result stands as a testimony to the enormous amount of work and care that had gone into the making of the reconstruction drama.

The producer Denis Woolf, and Channel 4, bent over backwards to ensure the programme meticulously adhered to the self-censorship demanded by lawyers hired to vet the programme. And indeed, no complaints were received from McDonald's following its broadcast to millions of UK viewers in 1997.

It therefore would have been, and continue to be, you would think, ideal for international showings and distribution to satisfy some of the global public interest in the historic trial brought by the most well known company in the world - the McDonald's Corporation.

But now no-one at all is able to view the McLibel dramatisation - it has not been shown again by Channel 4, and have refused to make it available on video. Its our understanding that they have demanded that before it can be shown abroad, TV companies would have to indemnify Channel 4 in case Channel 4 gets sued by McDonald's - over a showing abroad! So the long arm of UK libel law reaches out to intimidate people all over the world, whatever their own laws.

The complete UK media blackout of the 'McLibel: two world's collide' documentary - The wider availability and further broadcasts of the drama in other countries would seem to be even more appropriate in the light of the scandalous, current media suppression of the 'McLibel: Two World's Collide' hour-long documentary by One Off Productions which tells the full, inside story of the case.

Filmed over three years, with courtroom reconstructions directed by Ken Loach and exclusive access to the defendants' lives, it would clearly make a very popular peak-time documentary. But two proposed UK transmissions were blocked by lawyers at the BBC and Channel 4 [despite the all-clear from the production's independent media lawyer] and the film is currently available only on video and on the internet ( (See previous, more detailed statements about this).

The subject continues to be topical, especially as the McLibel Appeal preliminaries approach - oppressive and unfair UK libel laws will be formally challenged - with the defendants invoking European and US law - in defence of the public's freedom to scrutinise and criticise Corporations which dominate the world's economy.

But the public are currently unable to see the McLibel documentary on TV.

Why McDonald's won't sue:

    - The irony of all this is:

    • a. The trial dramatisation, just like the more recent documentary, was crafted to fully comply with lawyers breathing down the directors' necks.

    • b. The drama was successfully broadcast in the UK and therefore the risk of any legal action against C4 for a broadcast abroad is negligible, and to even threaten it would surely be a blatant abuse of legal process.

    • c. McDonald's lost the McLibel case on the main issues affecting their core business practices (and have significantly not appealed over these damning findings) - only ludicrous and irrelevant semantic argument over the interpretation of the words in the already out-of-print 1986 London Greenpeace factsheet prevented a complete judgement against the company. But even regarding the issues which were 'not proven' (in the judge's personal opinion) by the defence, the drama could simply add a quote from the verdict. The documentary of course already includes the verdict.

    • d. McDonald's capitulated at the end of the trial by abandoning all legal action (at the end of a 28 day official deadline set by the judge) to obtain damages, costs or even an injunction against leafletting.

    • e. The case was brought to suppress the leafletting, but leaflets - originally in the 1980s handed out in thousands in the UK and a handful of other countries - had, by the end of the trial, been distributed in millions in over 26 languages (400,000 leaflets given out in the UK alone the weekend after the case ended). McDonald's censorship attempts have been clearly shown to have been beaten.

    • f. McDonald's, as a result of the McLibel case debacle, abandoned its litigious practices from the 1980s and as far as we know not instituted any legal proceedings against anyone in the UK since. They have clearly learned from what has been described as 'the most expensive and disastrous PR exercise ever mounted by a multinational corporation'. The chance of them suing anyone again over basic criticisms is surely negligible, but over something published or broadcast about the 'McLibel' case would be an act of suicide. It would guarantee world wide publicity, condemnation and humiliation. And of course, any criticisms are backed up by thousands of pages of in court testimony and official documentation.

      The proof of this is the continuing growth of the leafletting, newspaper articles, the C4 dramatisation, the highly detailed 'McLibel: Burger Culture On Trial' book (partly co-written by the defendants), and of course the voluminous and comprehensive McSpotlight internet website (also available as a CD-Rom, including also the documentary) - none of which has resulted in any legal action or even complaint by McDonald's. This also applies to the 'McLibel:Two Worlds Collide' documentary which has been broadcast in the US, and shown publicly already in many countries including in the UK. Not a squeak from Mickey Dees.

Why then are the two productions now being suppressed by the TV networks?

- When media coverage of the case is looked at and analysed it becomes obvious that the case was covered only patchily (even in the UK Press, which gave the OJ Simpson trial at least 50 times the coverage), was almost never looked at in depth (with one or two exceptions), was portrayed as a 'human' or 'David vs Goliath' story concentrating on trivia (how long it was going on, what the defendants were wearing in court etc), and was rarely taken seriously despite being a challenge to the propaganda of the food industry and the power of oppressive libel laws. And incredibly, this is despite the fact that everyone in the media is in fear of those same libel laws breathing down their own necks - and here at last was a case with great public support and interest which was not only exposing these laws, but also showing how censorship could be easily opposed and defeated. You would've expected the entire media to line up behind the defence, if only out of pure self-interest.

But the media seem to treat McDonald's either with awe and sycophancy, or else as daft and jokey, a harmless and well-loved service organisation. McDonald's articles and pieces fill a great deal of space. To take seriously a trial which exposed the reality of a ruthless and powerful profiteering multinational and their mediocre over-hyped products, would be bound to raise questions about the role of the media in their sucking up to multinationals and the food industry.

And on top of that, as soon as the media go into the case in any depth it becomes impossible to hide the fact that the two worlds which were in conflict in the courtroom and on the streets were not just arguing about jeans vs suits, or McDonald's vs Burger King, or even high fat vs low fat products. They were arguing about issues fundamental to people's everyday lives, and anarchists opposing the oppressiveness and greed of capitalism as a whole were winning all the arguments and getting the public's backing. And showing up the powerlessness of the legal system when faced with determined and co-ordinated grass-roots opposition.

Hence the media, as the faithful mouthpiece of the establishment, chose to either ignore, or trivialise the case and campaign.

What can be done?

- If the official media won't broadcast material the public have a right to see, other ways must be found, and are being found, to reach large numbers of people in the UK and around the world. The C4 McLibel dramatisation was copied by many viewers when it was shown - it could be 'pirated' and made available on video. [Anyone who has done this - or is planning to do this - please let us know]. The McLibel documentary is being distributed as 'streaming video' on the Internet, on cable TV in the States, at international film festivals, on home video, at local video screenings and even by a travelling solar-powered cinema. Negotiations are continuing with mainstream TV stations in countries with less oppressive libel laws (including France, Canada, Australia). The McLibel Support Campaign and One-Off Productions have held a co-ordinated day of showings and protests to raise public awareness of the scandalous official suppression of the film and how it can be seen independently.

Surely the lesson of the McLibel case is that the determination of campaigners has ensured that the public is able to have access to material countering the glossy propaganda of multinationals, providing an alternative to their huge marketing budgets (McDonald's annual budget alone is over $2 billion world-wide) - despite the role of the media and the legal establishment in promoting and protecting the interests of big business. Leaflets continue to be circulated in millions, the number of protests outside local stores around the world continues to grow, material on the McSpotlight website had been globally accessed over 40 million times in its first two and a half years (and is now available on CD-Rom), and the McLibel TV documentary is gradually being distributed and shown independently.

We believe that the McLibel case is only one of many, diverse battles all over the world. On one side there are the greedy and powerful institutions which dominate our lives, our society and the environment, and on the other side there are people's efforts to expose the truth and to defend themselves and their communities. We are not surprised therefore when we discover the extent of the suppression of people's freedom of speech, but we call on people everywhere to not be discouraged, to not accept it, and to not be intimidated by legal threats.

    - The McLibel Support Campaign

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