Kerr's Corner

Kerr's Corner is a regular feature in East Antrim and Newtownabbey editions of The Wizard. David Kerr would like to hear your memories of life in your own area. Maybe you'll trigger some thoughts for a future column.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Film Review - McLibel: Two People who refused to say sorry

Release Date: February 20, 2006

Classification: Exempt

THIS IS documentary style account of the 314 day 'McLibel' trial which ended on 19 January 1997. In the longest trial in English legal history Helen Steel and Dave Morris represented themselves in a libel action brought by McDonalds. At the very start of the film two quotes are juxtaposed:-

"This is about the publics right to know what the most powerful organisations in the world are really doing" (Dave Morris) and "So far as McDonalds are concerned anybody is free to express his criticism in whatever form he wishes" (Richard Rampton, QC).

The early part of the film deals with the infiltration of London Greenpeace by private detectives working for McDonalds. McDonalds sent in seven different spies from two separate agencies (who were unaware of each other). At times more spies were present at meetings than genuine activists (just as in GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday!). One female spy was said to have had a six month sexual relationship with one of the activists.

The task of the spies was to identify who was responsible for a leaflet critical of McDonalds. The leaflet attacked McDonalds for an anti-Union policy, contributing to animal cruelty, complicity in environmental damage, adverse health effects of a junk food diet and advertising aimed at children. The spies needed to get names and addresses to serve writs. In the case of Dave Morris this was done by asking another activist on the pretext of sending his son clothes.

On 21 September 1990 five members of London Greenpeace were served with libel writs. Three of the Five apologised to McDonalds but Morris and Steel refused. The documentary illustrates how the odds were rigged against the defendants. Legal Aid is not granted for libel cases in the UK. The McLibel 2 had to defend themselves and seek to show the truth of the allegations. Arrayed against them was a substantial team of qualified lawyers and a company that could easily afford to fly witnesses in from around the world. It was a David and Goliath struggle.

Throughout the film we can see the strain that is placed on the defendants and their family life and relationships by the trial. Dave was bringing his young Son up alone and Helen was working night shifts in a bar to pay the bills. Yet when Helen Steel requested a short break due to this (on medical advice) it was refused. The film raises a number of questions about the UKs harsh libel laws and freedom of expression.

Each section of the leaflet was pored over and tested with each side presenting argument and evidence. The documentary follows this logical structure with a re-enactment (directed by Ken Loach) of a brief opening statement from Richard Rampton QC summarising the issue in question. Key exchanges between Rampton and witnesses and statements or questions to witnesses from Morris and Steel are also vividly brought to life.

McDonalds lost the publicity war to these two determined activists. Helen and Dave were adept at presenting their case through the establishment media. Yet they also realised that it was better to communicate their message directly to avoid distortion or censorship. They launched a website

The trial eventually resulted in £60,000 damages awarded to McDonalds (reduced to £40,000 on appeal). McDonalds is estimated to have spent over $19 million on the case. Helen and Dave also challenged the UK government. However, this was not the end of the story. On February 15, 2005, the marathon legal battle finally concluded at the European Court of Human Rights.
Filmed over ten years by no-budget Director Franny Armstrong this is an enthralling and important project.

It's interesting to note that McDonalds is in decline in the UK. 25 UK stores are being closed after five years of falling sales. In the end, it wasn't criticism from activists that led to slump in the UK sales. Rather competition from rival coffee and sandwich chains combined with greater general health awareness is what has hit them hard. The impact of films such as this and Supersize Me in this overall equation is difficult to quantify

Pat Harrington


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