Known more widely as McLibel, it’s the subject of the 2005 documentary our family viewed last night. McLibel exposes how, until the case was litigated, Britain’s libel laws allowed the fast-food giant to stop all negative speech against them.
McDonald’s had the legal right to send cease and desist letters to those who exercised free speech in ways they didn’t like. Unless those individuals or organizations apologized, McDonald’s could sue them for libel and force them to prove their statements true.
These letters were enough to muzzle all McDonald’s critics, including every major British news agency. That is, until the day two London Greenpeace members promoting veganism received them.
Gardner Helen Steel and postman David Morris had joined with other Greenpeace advocates to publish and distribute flyers titled, “What’s Wrong with McDonalds: Everything They Don’t Want You To Know.
As the title suggests, McDonald’s had reason for alarm. The leaflets presented forceful arguments as to why the company needed to change its act:
Their food caused heart disease and cancer.
Their employees had poor working conditions.
Their huge demand for meat encouraged cruelty to animals.
The same demand was causing enormous environmental damage.
Their advertising exploited children to addict them to unhealthy food.
Little did the long-time friends realize their small act of defiance was a defining moment in their lives. Their adversary had the support of centuries of British libel law and an unlimited legal budget.
Some of it paid for two spy agencies to infiltrate London Greenpeace. One infiltrator went as far as having a six-month affair with a Greenpeace member and going on holiday with his family!
McDonald’s also brought in the UK’s foremost libel barrister. Meanwhile, Helen and David were forced to argue their own case under the guidance of sympathetic barrister Kier Starmer.
Kier understood the unfairness of a legal system weighted in favor of large corporations.
McDonald’s, however, wanted to make examples of David and Helen by showing the world these two protesters couldn’t get away with standing up to a giant.
The story, however, evolved into a David-and-Goliath disaster for the fast food chain.
On February 16, 1996, after the “…newfangled invention called the Internet” had arrived, the underdogs launched their website McSpotlight.org before a live crowd in front of the Leicester Square McDonald’s. Donations started coming in — and things definitely started looking up!
A copy of the original 1986 flyer is still proudly posted on their website to this day, pronouncing the same clear message:
“THERE are loads of cheap, tasty and nutritious alternatives to a diet based on the decomposing flesh of dead animals: fresh fruit of all kinds, a huge variety of local & exotic vegetables, cereals, pulses, beans, rice, nuts, wholegrain foods…”
Spoiler alert: No matter how hard they tried to spin the case’s outcome, McDonald’s didn’t win in the end.