The Mclibel trial was a court case between McDonald’s restaurant limited (plaintiffs) Vs Dave Morris (gardener) and Helen Steel (postman) (defendants) from green peace London. The case ran for two and a half years and became the longest civil case in British history.
The fast food giant McDonald’s was suing the campaigners Dave Morris and Helen Steel for libel over a six-page fact sheet entitled “What’s Wrong With McDonald’s?” Since there is no legal aid in libel cases, Morris and Steel had to represent themselves against top team of libel lawyers employed by McDonald’s. The trial began in June 1994 and a verdict was given in June 1997.
The judge (Justice Bell) ruled that McDonald’s “exploits children” with there advertising, are “culpably responsible” for cruelty to animals and so on. But Morris and Steel failed to prove all points they had made so the judge ruled that they had libeled McDonald’s and therefore should pay £60,000 damages. They refused and McDonald’s did not pursue it.
The media generally focused on the human-interest story of Dave Morris and Helen Steel’s lives. But however were not addressing the case as much as we might expect, in fact the media coverage of this case never reached the light of representation, this was known partly because the media where fearful of criticizing McDonald’s1. Although at the climax of this legal blockbuster the media were temporarily awash with ‘David and Goliath’ stories, all too often laced with unnecessary and patronizing ‘human interest’ angles, the vast majority of this crucial libel trial received remarkably little coverage.
The main reason suggested behind the insufficiency of media coverage was the fear of libel actions and of losing advertising revenues that persuaded most media organizations to leave well alone when it came to exposing some of the more unsavoury aspects of the burger giants McDonalds.
McDonalds global advertising and marketing budgets is colossal ($1,800m in 1995), and the media partly financed this by advertising and has such would not risk the company’s wrath at their peril (media’s risk)2. It is alleged that when the independent carried a front-page story about McDonalds secret attempts to negotiate a settlement after only six weeks of the case, the company withdrew ï¿½80,000 of advertising from the independent on Sunday.
So from this point most of the tabloids and broadsheets adapted a stance to omit certain information about the case as the trial approached.
The British media institutions that have been intimidated by the threat of legal action from McDonalds, indicating clout that comes with the burger chains annul $3 billion profit. The lists includes such generally hostile sections of the British press as the Guardian and Channel 4 and underscores the modern media also in losing advertisement revenues.
In 1989 Channel4 was forced to apologize in court, and pay McDonalds costs, after showing “jungle burger”, in which the sales director of one of McDonalds Costa Rican suppliers seemed to admit that the beef, which he supplied to the company, had been farmed on ranches created by deforestation3. There were also other films made (One Every Mile) which mysteriously disappeared because the filmmaker ceded too much editorial control to McDonalds.
Both these films are briefly quoted in Dennis Woolf’s exemplary dramatization of highlights of the trial, the three hour-plus Mclibel, which was shown on channel 4 just before the verdict was announced. But even this has now run into problems, since the channel is refusing to sell it to overseas buyers unless they indemnify the channel against possible libel action by McDonalds.
This entire struggle to get media coverage to a level where people know what’s happening is nothing, however, compared to the problems faced by ‘Mclibel: Two Worlds Collide’, although only the guardian has seen fit to cover them. Franny Armstrong set up her company, one-off productions, specifically to make this film and was among a number of independent producers who tried during the trial to interest the broadcasters in it. ITV told her there was ‘not enough action’; the BBC did not feel ‘sufficiently enthusiastic’; and channel 4 decided to put its resources behind Dennis Woolf.
A panal of eight relations professional brought together by the UK marketing industry magazine ‘PR Week’ have declared that the Mclibel trial and campaign was seventh out of a top twenty of the most effective public relations ‘consumer facing’ campaign (mostly UK based) of all time4.
Such a ‘top twenty’ is a load of meaningless hype. But the success of the Mclibel publicity and campaign, recognized by the PR industry hacks from PR week, is a testament to the powers or the truth against corporate propaganda and media complicity.
In relation of being a record-breaking libel case in British history it did not achieve the recognition it deserved and this could be said because of the injustice and power a corporate company like McDonald’s posses over the media.