by Jan Baughman
(Swans - June 20, 2005) Friday, June 10, with my editor's encouragement and excellent information from Louis Proyect, I attended the San Francisco opening of McLibel at the Landmark Lumière theater. Armed with camera, pen and notepad, I was eagerly anticipating the event, and not knowing how the line would be, arrived nearly two hours in advance to get parking and a ticket. I wandered the streets until the 2:30 p.m. showing approached. Unfortunately it was a non-event; the theater was quiet, the McDonalds protesters were absent, and I made my way effortlessly to occupy a spot in the 145-seat theater. Six other single moviegoers were dotted throughout the theater -- all men -- and I felt, especially after meandering through the Tenderloin, that I was about to see an X-rated feature. In fact, the movie left me with the sense that McDonalds and its corporate practices are indeed, obscene, and that fast food should carry an X rating to protect our children from it -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.
McLibel is a Franny Armstrong documentary that chronicles the fight of two British citizens and a core group of volunteers who represented themselves against a libel charge by corporate giant McDonalds and its team of highly paid lawyers. The cards were stacked higher against them when McDonalds successfully argued that the case would be too complicated for a jury to understand, so rather than argue the case before a jury of their peers, their only arbiter was the judge.
Helen Steel, a gardener, and Dave Morris, a postal worker, were two activists in a group called London Greenpeace. In 1988, they worked on a campaign distributing fliers with complaints against McDonalds including animal cruelty amongst its beef and chicken suppliers, the unhealthiness of its food, its detriment to the environment, and the poor working conditions. McDonalds infiltrated London Greenpeace with seven private investigators from two different firms and over the course of months working with the group, they collected evidence, stole letters and obtained information with which McDonalds charged Steel, Morris, and five of their colleagues with writs of libel. The five colleagues apologized to the company and their charges were dropped; Steel and Morris stood firm. The story of their battle is as much about the backward libel laws in England as it is about a corporate giant defending its practices and trying to bully two individuals into silence.
British law provided only two free hours of legal aid for libel cases -- no court-appointed representation -- and put the onus on the defendants to prove the truth of the allegations in their leaflets, as opposed to requiring McDonalds to prove them false. Both Helen Steel and Dave Morris spent every spare minute of their lives researching, collecting documentation, preparing for their arguments and appealing for support. The toll of this 15-year battle, encompassing their defense against McDonalds and their subsequent fight against the British government, is painfully conveyed in what is only an 85-minute accounting.
What is equally conveyed is the undying resolve and conviction of two people with few means but great will and tremendous fortitude to stand for their convictions. Offered the possibility of settlement four years into the case, the defendants insisted that McDonalds apologize to former victims of its lawsuits and agree to refrain from future ones. McDonalds refused, and the case continued.
The film includes interviews with Steel and Morris, reenactments of portions of the trial based on transcripts, commentary by Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, which supports and expands upon their charges against McDonalds, and scenes from the meat suppliers that makes one think seriously about just what it is we are eating. McLibel addresses one by one the libel charges and the evidence on which the two based their claims. Interestingly enough, and I add this as a non-conspiracy theorist, one member of my audience appeared to be a McDonalds' provocateur. Each time an anti-McDonalds or pro-Steel/Morris claim was made he would shout -- and I mean shout, "Oh for Christ's sake," or "Oh, Jesus." After seeing this movie, I wouldn't put it past McDonalds to plant naysayers at every showing.
The McDonalds case did end in victory of sorts for Helen Steel and Dave Morris, but I'll leave those details for the movie to reveal. The pinnacle of the documentary, however, rests with their case at the European Court of Human Rights against the U.K.'s libel laws and lack of legal aid for defendants. The outcome is an inspiration to activists and to any disenfranchised soul who feels that one person cannot make a bit of difference when fighting against the powers that be.
I highly recommend McLibel -- go see it while you can. According to the movie's Web site, "it only goes nationwide if these first four cities [San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis] are a big success." For complete information on the McLibel case and the movie, visit mcspotlight.org.