Sunday, September 13, 2009

McDonald's and McLibel - the successful humiliation of a multinational [1985-2005] - by the McLibel Support Campaign.

The global campaign against McDonald's
Food is central to our everyday lives, yet we have virtually no control over its production and distribution. The food industry is dominated by multinational companies who for their own profits exploit consumers, workers, the world's natural resources and billions of farmed animals. The way we eat, and even the way we think about food is being manipulated by these powerful institutions and their sophisticated marketing campaigns.

To understand the reality behind the propaganda, some organisations in the 1980s began to focus on McDonald's - one of the most powerful, influential and well-known global companies.

Despite its strenuous efforts, McDonald's was and still is widely despised, and its 'reputation' - along with that of the food industry in general began to sink ever further when put under the public spotlight....

In 1985 London Greenpeace launched annual protests on October 16th [UN World Food Day]. These were protests against the promotion of junk food, the unethical targeting of children, exploitation of workers, animal cruelty, damage to the environment and the global domination of corporations over our lives. The October 16th international protests grew rapidly, despite - and maybe even because of - McDonald's notoriously unsuccessful legal efforts to silence their critics with libel writs (see below). For example, in the years immediately following the successful McLibel battle:

** In 1999, the only year in which there was systematic monitoring of where the protests took place, there were recorded 425 protests and pickets in 345 towns in 23 countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, England, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, USA.
** In 2000, there were widespread and large protests throughout Italy - at one store in Rome 300 demonstrators succeeded in getting it closed for the day.
** In 2002 for the first time, McDonald's workers joined in the Day of Action - there were walkouts and other forms of protests in many countries co-ordinated by McDonald's Workers Resistance (an international network of McDonald's workers - see

Over 3 million 'What's Wrong With McDonald's?' leaflets were handed out in the UK alone from 1990-1997, and versions are now distributed worldwide in over 27 languages.

See the 'What's Wrong With McDonald's?' leaflet at:

General opposition to McDonald's

As well as the mass distribution of leaflets by thousands of local activists around the world, especially on the annual October 16th Anti-McDonald's Day, the global campaign against McDonald's involved a wide range of people and tactics. Fore example, a snapshot from the late 1990s includes:

- many determined residents' campaigns against new stores, including a successful 552-day occupation of a proposed McDonald's site by residents of Hinchley Wood, S.E. England, campaigns against drive-thrus in Canada, and protest blockades in Voronezh (S. Russia)
- mass anti-McDonald's protests by french farmers, including a 30,000-strong demo
- efforts by McDonald’s workers to organise together to stand up to their bosses (eg. in the UK, France, Russia and Canada), including the creation of the McDonald's Workers Resistance
- a global upsurge of concern over the alarming increase in obesity, heart disease and a range of other serious health problems in industrialised countries. McDonald's identified as a main culprit. This has included a lawsuit against US junk food corporations McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, and Wendys on behalf of millions of customers mislead by the systematic and unethical promotion of unhealthy food products
- there has been growing pressure for bans and restrictions on advertising to children, controversies over McDonald's sponsorship of the United Nations Childrens Fund, and over their involvement in schools and hospitals
- an ongoing international scandal over extreme labour exploitation in China for the production of McDonald's 'happy meal' toys
- McDonald's USA sued and forced to apologise and pay out millions of dollars for deceiving their customers by not revealing beef extract was a content of their supposedly vegetarian french fries
- growing concern throughout Europe, Japan, Australia, US and Canada about the threat to human health posed by beef-related diseases (such as BSE) and genetically-modified animal feed
- food poisoning scandals in South America (Argentina and Chile)
- protests against McDonald's mass use of refrigeration chemicals linked to global warming
- controversies over McDonald's hypocritical 'concern' professed over animal cruelty and general corporate responsibility
- McDonald’s increasingly identified by a wide range of protestors worldwide as a symbol of modern capitalism
- recent falls in their global profits and corporate closure of many stores, with US Executives admitting that recent years have been the "most challenging" in McDonald's 50-year history

The McLibel case

The McLibel trial was described by commentators as 'the worst Corporate PR disaster in history'. McDonald's Corporation issued writs against North London residents Helen Steel and Dave Morris (the McLibel 2) on 20th September 1990 alleging the company had been libelled in the London Greenpeace factsheet "What's Wrong With McDonald's? Everything they don’t want you to know". The McLibel trial began on 28th June 1994, and on June 19th 1997 - after a trial lasting 313 days (the longest trial ever in England) - Mr Justice Bell ruled that McDonald's marketing has "pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which their food (high in fat & salt etc) did not match"; that McDonald's "exploit children" with their advertising strategy; are "culpably responsible for animal cruelty"; and "pay low wages, helping to depress wages in the catering trade."

On March 31st 1999 the Court of Appeal added to those damning findings. Lord Justices Pill, May and Keane ruled that it was fair comment to say that McDonald's employees worldwide "do badly in terms of pay and conditions", and true that "if one eats enough McDonald's food, one's diet may well become high in fat etc., with the very real risk of heart disease." However the Courts ruled that the McLibel 2 had still libelled McDonald's over some points and outrageously ordered them to pay £40,000 damages to the $35 billion-dollar company. The McLibel 2 refused to pay a penny.

On February 15th 2005 the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that the McLibel trial had breached Article 6 [right to a fair trial] and Article 10 [right to freedom of expression] of the Human Rights Convention. This ruling only underlines the significance of the above rulings made against McDonald's, which were made despite all the odds stacked against the defendants.

Background info on the whole incredible case and campaign:
- by visiting
- McLibel film (as shown on BBC) and DVD:

The McLibel 2 interviewed - Helen Steel and David Morris talk about their fifteen year legal battle with McDonalds
From the Alternative Press Review

The McLibel case began in 1990 when the McDonald’s Corporation issued libel writs against people involved with London Greenpeace (an anarchist environmental group which pre-dated the more well-known Greenpeace). McDonald’s demanded an apology and the withdrawal of the group’s anti-McDonald’s leaflets. The leaflet brought together criticisms of McDonald’s business practices made by different movements in relation to the environment, workers rights, cash crops, nutrition, advertising to children and exploitation of animals. It used McDonald’s as a high profile company to take an overall look at the effect of multinational corporations on society.

The McLibel trial itself lasted from 1994 to 1997, with an appeal in 1999. Despite all the odds stacked against the McLibel Two (burden of proof on them, no jury, no legal aid, McDonald’s spending £10m on the case, etc.) they succeeded on many points. The courts ruled that McDonald’s marketing has “pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which their food (high in fat and salt, etc.) did not match”; that McDonald’s “exploit children with their advertising strategy; are “culpably responsible for animal cruelty”; and “pay low wages, helping to depress wages in the catering trade”; that it was fair comment to say that McDonald’s employees worldwide “do badly in terms of pay and conditions”; and true that “if one eats enough McDonald’s food, one’s diet may well become high in fat, etc., with the very real risk of heart disease.”

Incredibly, despite these damning rulings made against the company the McLibel Two were ordered to pay £40,000 to McDonald’s. The McLibel Two refused to pay a penny.

On 15th February 2005 the European Court of Human Rights declared that the case was in breach of the right to a fair trial and right to freedom of expression.

Q. What implications for freedom of speech and the right to protest do you think the outcome of this case will have?

Although we won the case in Europe the ruling actually fudged most of the issues we had argued, and as a result may not have that much impact on freedom of speech. What has had and will have a far greater impact is the mass defiance campaign which has shown that oppressive laws can be rendered unworkable if people defy them.

Early on in the legal proceedings the McLibel Support Campaign (MSC) was set up and run by volunteers on a shoestring from someone’s bedroom, and through open collective meetings. The MSC called for many international days of action against McDonald’s throughout the trial and immediately after the verdict. Thousands of people signed a pledge to say that whatever happened in the court proceedings they would defy the company’s censorship efforts.

Two days after the judge had given his mixed ruling in 1997, and ordered us to pay McDonald’s damages, protests took place at over 500 UK stores and elsewhere around the world. Around three million leaflets had been distributed in the UK alone since the writs were served. This showed McDonald’s that it was futile to attempt to use the legal system to silence people, and they then abandoned their original claim for costs and an injunction to prevent leafleting. They have also never attempted to enforce the damages.

The MSC also ensured that the detailed information about McDonald’s that was emerging from internal company documents and cross examination during the trial was publicized around the world. This acted as another layer of protection for freedom of speech. The pioneering mcspotlight website was set up in 1996 as a library of information on the case and the company—it has been accessed over 100 million times since.

The MSC was also responsible for most of the media publicity, and the networking with wider movements. It offered support to residents opposing local McDonald’s stores, workers standing up to the company, parents challenging McDonald’s sponsorship in schools, etc. A sister group in Nottingham, the Veggies collective, helped coordinate the growing mass leafleting and protests, as well as sending people down to London throughout the trial to provide practical support.
Overall the case spectacularly backfired for McDonald’s. They had issued legal proceedings as part of a long running and largely successful strategy of legal threats to their critics. Instead, this time the campaign had turned the tables and put the company on trial—all their business practices received massive scrutiny during the trial, and the leafleting mushroomed. They haven’t issued libel writs in the UK since, and other companies have been warned not to ‘do a McLibel.’

Q. What else helped you fight the case?

Our background as activists involved in diverse struggles (such as in supporting the miners strike, the anti-poll tax movement, environmental direct action, local campaigns, etc.) gave us a lot of experience and inspiration to draw on. There’s a myth created by the media that we fought this case alone. In fact, it was a collective effort—we could not have fought this long battle without a network of personal support from friends, babysitters (Dave is a single parent), and a whole range of volunteers helping in different ways. That, and the overwhelming support and encouragement we received from all directions. Regarding the court case, so many people volunteered their time and efforts as witnesses, experts, researchers, in-court helpers and legal advisers, etc.

Where we were ‘on our own’ was in speaking in court and finding our way round the 40,000 pages of documents. However, although this was exhausting, it was very empowering to be able to challenge corporate executives face to face, without them being able to walk away.

Q. Where there dilemmas you faced as anarchists involved in such a high-profile case and campaign?

Dilemmas included: how to participate in court procedures without recognizing their right to dictate what the public can say; and having to focus on McDonald’s yet wanting to avoid being drawn into a ‘boycott McDonald’s’ line. We also made a commitment to avoid any ‘anti-Americanism’.

The campaign, in trying to maintain media coverage, tended to focus on the more extreme practices of capitalism and the legal system, rather than their very existence. The establishment media was superficial, inaccurate and largely uninterested in the campaign as a whole, yet we relied on it to publicise the case. In many ways we were lucky it was McDonald’s that sued us, thus guaranteeing a high profile. We were uncomfortable with the idiotic focus on us as a ‘heroic duo’, but speaking to the media was the only way we could ensure getting quotes in the press about some of the issues and the campaigning.

Despite these dilemmas we feel that the wider McLibel campaign contributed to the growth of the contemporary anti-capitalist movement in a number of ways: the long-running, high-profile, yet radical grass-roots nature of the campaign; the focus on the overall effects of a global industry (food) rather than just one aspect of it; the success in defying censorship; and the calls, albeit vague, for resistance and alternatives to the current system.

Q. McDonalds say the world has moved on since this trial and the company has changed—do you think this is true?

No. McDonald’s, in common with other multinational corporations, exists to make profits for the benefit of their shareholders and directors—to that end they continue to exploit workers, children and other consumers, the environment and animals.

In the years since the trial finished McDonald’s profits have dropped, at least partly due to the increasing public awareness of the unhealthy nature of junk food and increased risks of obesity, heart disease and cancer as a result of this type of diet. McDonald’s have introduced so-called ‘healthy’ options to their menus, but this is not because of their concern for the public’s health, it is merely an attempt to capture customers who wouldn’t eat their usual fare.

The reality is that McDonald’s trumpet every minor change and use it as an opportunity for PR and greenwash: fundamentally, the whole system remains the same.
What advice would you give to anti-capitalist leaflet writers about avoiding libel cases?

People should be free to distribute any criticisms which they feel are justified—just as they must have the freedom to organize, demonstrate and campaign against oppression and injustice. Such freedoms have to be continuously exercised and fought for—especially in the current repressive climate. What we publish should be based not on libel laws, but on whether we believe the statements to be true. Our concerns should be who we are trying communicate to while making our publications as accurate and understandable as we can. We will only gain the respect and trust of the public when they can see that what we write is reliable and not invented to suit our own purposes—as happens all too often with the mainstream media and politicians, etc.

Q. What sort of advice would you give to people who are facing legal threats?

We would always encourage people to stand up to bullies—whether corporations, governments, police or whatever—and refuse to be intimidated by legal or other threats. But it’s essential to get organized, to refuse to be marginalized or criminalized, and to constantly engage with wider opposition movements and the public in general. Any movements for change can expect to have to resist and overcome repression. We need to work out how best to transform court cases into arenas around which public debate and struggles can be stimulated and mobilized. ‘Natural justice’ and ‘civil society’ are stronger than we all realize. The rulings of supposedly powerful legal, state and corporate institutions can be successfully opposed.

Q. What do you plan to do now?

The McLibel legal battle is over now but the struggle continues for a society run by and for the benefit of everyone. We are both active in a wide range of activities and campaigns in our local community and with the Haringey Solidarity Group. We intend to continue as a small part of the much wider movement for a better world.

For more info on the case and campaign see
For more info on the McLibel film see

1 comment:

  1. A film on "The victorious McLibel Campaign, 1985-2005" was shown on BBC2 soon after being made; before that it was shown in some cinemas. It has also been shown on TV in many countries… You can now see the full film online:

    and also find the 2005 LEAFLET here: