David vs. McGoliath (A modern day web battle)

The decision-makers at One McDonald’s Plaza, Oak Brook, Illinois must be regretting the day they decided to sue David Morris and Helen Steel for libel. If you’ haven’t heard of the McLibel two yet then standby, they’re coming to a website near you.

On October 16th 1986 members of London Greenpeace distributed a pamphlet entitled “What’s wrong with McDonald’s? – Everything they don’t want you to know”. The pamphlet takes issue with McDonald’s and links the multinational fast food giant to many questionable business-practices. The $30 billion a year corporation felt that they were under attack from London Greenpeace and after infiltrating the organisation issued a writ against five of its members in order to stop further publication of the pamphlet. Three of the five apologised to McDonalds and withdraw stating that they couldn’t afford to defend themselves. Morris and Steel, whose combined income is less than 7000 British pounds p.a., decided that free speech was on trial and defended themselves without any legal support.

The trial ran for a record 313 days, the longest ever in Britain. The verdict came in on the 19th June 1997 and Justice Bell awarded 60 000 pounds to McDonalds in damages. He found that the contents of the Greenpeace pamphlet were libellous but conceded that McDonalds did mislead the public in a 1990 campaign claiming that its packaging was recycled. He also found that some of McDonald’s promotional claims that their food had a positive nutritional benefit “did not match” the reality of a product that was high in saturated fat and salt.

Having little or no resources to fight the case Steel and Morris appealed for help using an Internet web site called McSpotlight. They received 35 000 pounds in support from supporters around the world. McDonalds spent 8 000 pounds a day on their legal team and don’t make no mention of the trial on their website. Although the trial is over, the McSpotlight website has gained a life of its own and is now run by a group call the McInformation Network. “McDonald’s spends over $1.8 billion a year broadcasting their glossy image to the world. This is a small space for alternatives to be heard”, the website claims.

Lower budget it may be but it certainly isn’t small. 21 000 pages combine all the information pertinent to the trial with some cheeky features like an alternative feedback forum that asks users for “really honest” comments about McDonalds and then feeds the information directly into the official McDonalds web site. The full text of the original pamphlet, subject of the McLibel trial, is also included on the site. This is a brave move when one considers that McDonalds was prepared to spend nearly 10 million pounds and 11 years trying to stop the publication of the same brochure.

In an article in The Independent (UK), Tim Hardy makes the point that it is almost impossible for McDonalds to silence what is published on the Internet. Even the most ardent litigators would struggle to fight a battle against web site publishers located in 22 countries who publish four identical sites in Austria, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.

One can load the McDonalds website in one window and the McSpotlight website in another and then compare the messages. While both are naturally biased towards their own perspectives, it is fascinating to see such a standoff of opinions that would normally be prohibitively expensive for the defendants in any other medium.

The more than 100 press releases dating back more than a year on the official McDonalds web site make no mention of the trial or even their victory. Perhaps a sign that it hasn’t exactly been a public relations coup for the multinational giant.

In recent years corporates in the United States have been affronted with individuals and law firms taking them on in class action lawsuits. Perhaps the efforts of the McLibel two are the start of new trend which should be worrying the public relations departments of multinational corporations. The World Wide Web has given individuals the ability to publish their message and to group communities together around a particular cause.

Relatively easy to set up, these initiatives are very difficult to stop especially when they cross international borders. Corporations would be well advised to take this new threat into account. If two almost broke individuals can mobilise such a movement against a company with the second biggest brand in the world, who knows what can be done to lesser corporates.

Author: Dale Williams

Dale is based in Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa from where he maintains connections with people all over the world through his portfolio life.