John Vidal: McLibel

John Vidal
The New Press

IN 1990, THE McDonald's corporation brought a libel suit against five members of London Greenpeace for distributing pamphlets titled, "What's Wrong With McDonald's?" The leaflets criticized McDonald's for a full slate of trespasses, including mistreating animals, misleading customers, inflicting environmental damage, and conducting untoward employment policies. Three members of the accused group surrendered and agreed to public apologies; Helen Steel and David Morris decided to fight.

John Vidal tells the story of Steel and Morris's four-year journey through the British legal system as they represent themselves against a libel dream-team assembled by McDonald's. The outcome of the case is almost incidental to the protracted affair--the punch line to a shaggy-dog joke. Although McDonald's is awarded £98,000 in damages (which they could never hope to collect from this pair of chronically broke activists), the company is also publicly cited for propagating animal cruelty, promoting junk-food to children, and paying low wages. McDonald's intention to use Britain's loose libel laws to suppress free speech has backfired. And in July 1997, McDonald's acknowledges the McBlunder when the multinational "abandons all legal efforts to stop the distribution of leaflets or collect any of the millions it has spent on the case."

Like the grueling lawsuit itself, though, McLibel sometimes reads like a battle of attrition: The play-by-play depictions of the courtroom machinations will lull most readers to sleep. Grinding through these sections, however, is worth the trouble considering what there is to learn about the process whereby a cow becomes a Big Mac or the extensive advertising campaigns aimed at getting children to pester unhappy adults into buying a Happy Meal.

By the close of the book, readers are likely to experience the same kind exhaustion the court must have faced over all those McMonths and the same indeterminacy about the merits of the case. On the one hand, the case is about ordinary citizens whose pursuit of truth proves successful against a powerful adversary. On the other hand, this public-relations nightmare for McDonald's seems to have had little effect where the consumer casts her daily vote: at the register, along with the other billions served.

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