Big Mac’s Attack on Free Speech

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, Hong Kong.

McDonald’s gets snared by 2 London activists who refuse to be bullied.

There we were. A handful of activists distributing leaflets outside Hong Kong’s busiest McDonald’s restaurant. Nothing to grab headlines, right?

Wrong. We were handing out the brand new Chinese translation of the most famous leaflet on Earth: “What’s Wrong With McDonald’s?” And we were doing it with Helen Steel, one of the two McLibel defendants.

You may recall the McLibel trial which wrapped up last year after becoming the longest running trial in British history. McDonald’s had threatened to sue five London Greenpeace activists for handing out a leaflet drawing attention to the company’s exploitation of people, animals and the environment in their drive to make profits. Two of the activists refused to apologize, and found themselves up against a US$30 billion-per-year giant corporation with deep pockets and the best libel lawyers in the land.

Although the two had little money and no law background, they were denied legal aid. Yet incredibly, like David against Goliath, they managed to topple McDonald’s clean image by snaring them in a web of their own making. The trial became a public relations fiasco for the huge corporation.

With courage and commitment, Steel and her co-defendant Dave Morris “effectively (turned) the tables and McDonald’s found themselves on trial with their business practices under ever greater scrutiny in the witness box” commented Steel.

Steel and Morris brought sixty expert witnesses to testify how McDonald’s exploited children, workers, animals, and the environment. The nutritional quality of the food was put under the microscope. At one point a senior McDonald’s executive claimed that Coke was nutritious because it provided water!

The company’s tactic of “competing for a share of the customer’s mind” was exposed, as was the targeting of two-to-eight-year-old kids to pester their parents. The tactic, known as “pester power”, is so effective that it’s hard for parents to resist.

The multinational, with 22,000 restaurants in 109 countries, found itself up against the growing global power of the Internet. Supporters established McSpotlight to spread the word about the trial and McDonald’s questionable practices. It became a runaway Internet hit, with over eighteen million visits and growing. Thanks to this website, the leaflet has been translated into over 13 languages and distributed worldwide.

In the end, Judge Bell sided with McDonald’s though he agreed with many of the claims contained in the leaflet. The judge found that McDonald’s “exploits children” through their advertising, are “culpably responsible” for cruelty to animals, and pays low wages that further depresses the already low wages in the catering industry. The two defendants were ordered to pay McDonald’s £60,000 but the burger giant does not intend to pursue them for damages. Steel and Morris are appealing the case.

Why would McDonald’s bother with a few activists quietly handing out leaflets? Says Helen: “McDonald’s are all image: a caring, green organization that’s good for the planet and good for the environment… As soon as anybody tries to burst this image… they get desperate… They spend $2 billion US annually on advertising and promotion to get their point of view across… There’s an absolutely desperate need for the other story to be heard, about the exploitation and oppression of people and the damage to the environment”. She believes the trial was about ensuring that people have the right to criticize the powerful organizations that operate in society today.

How could a couple of activists successfully take on one of the best known corporations on the planet? Steel explains: “They’ve got to be stood up to – and that’s really why we fought the case. And I would encourage anybody to stand up for what they believe in and not give in to bullying and intimidation. Not just us, but the whole campaign around the world has really shown what people can do if they are organized and determined. They can take on the most seemingly powerful organization and win! It just takes determination, and you’ve got to believe that you can do it!”

“Even thought we had no legal experience, no training, no background in how to fight a libel case as soon as we got their presidents, executives, experts in the witness box, and we were able to keep asking them questions, they were the ones that were worried… All they’re interested in is making money. And we can see what a mess they’re making of the world.”

“McDonald’s are really just a symbol of what’s wrong with the way society is currently run. Basically, people, animals and the environment are seen as the means for a minority to make their profits. And the rest of us – we don’t get a look. What this whole campaign is about is trying to create a world that’s based on strong communities, with mutual aid, freedom and sharing, where people have control of their own lives and communities rather than being dictated to by the needs of big business and government” Helen concludes.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead is often quoted as saying: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Helen and Dave show what a bit of chutzpah and a pile of perseverance can accomplish.