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USA: Cinema Libre
UK: Revelation Films
Cast: Helen Steel, Dave Morris, Bruce Alexander, Pip Donaghy, Ian Flintoff, Oliver Ford Davies, Richard Hope, William Hope, Linda Mcquire, Nick Miles, Fred Pearson, Malcolm Tiernay, Anita Anand, Peter Armstrong, Chris Brierley, Rhona Cameron, Wilson Haagens, Frank Hutson, Robert Newman, Simon O'Brien, Alfie Thomas, Louise Wallis
Director: Franny Armstrong
USA & UK: 85 mins
USA Release Date: 10 June 2005 (Limited Release)
USA Release Date: 20 May 2005 (Limited Release - New York)
UK DVD Release Date: 20 February 2006
UK Release Date: 17 February 2006 (Limited Release - London, West End)
The story of two people who wouldn't say McSorry.
McLIBEL is the story of two ordinary people who stood up the multinational power of McDonald's in the biggest corporate PR disaster in history. Filmed over a 10-year period, the documentary follows the lives of Helen Steel and Dave Morris as they are transformed from anonymous non-profit activists into unlikely global heroes, defending themselves through what became the longest trial in English history. Director Franny Armstrong documents the McLIBEL case's drama and intrigue with compelling, behind-the-scenes detail, while highlighting the film's key issue: The people's right to freedom of speech in the face of massive corporate globalization.
In 1986, a non-profit group named London Greenpeace (LGP) produced a leaflet called "What's Wrong With McDonald's? Everything They Don't Want You to Know," attacking many aspects of the corporation's business practices. Morris and Steel were members of the group. Soon after the leaflets appeared, McDonald's hired spies to infiltrate LGP. Under UK law, non-profit organizations are invulnerable to libel suits. The "McSpies" collected information on the identities and home addresses of LGP activists, reporting back to McDonald's, who in turn sued five of the group's members individually.
McDonald's offered the individuals a stark choice: retract the allegations made in the leaflet and apologize, or go to court. With no money nor legal experience, and little hope of defeating McDonald's Goliath legal team, three of the five members reluctantly backed out and issued apologies. Steel and Morris determined they would not be bullied. The pair decided to stand up to the burger giant in court and set out upon a journey that would change their lives forever. They soon became known as the McLibel 2.
Over the next three years in court, Steel and Morris faced seemingly insurmountable odds. Extensive research, 40,000 pages of background reading, intense media scrutiny and family/financial challenges, combined with court preparations, hearings and appeals, pushed Steel and Morris beyond exhaustion. They were up against libel laws stacked in favor of McDonald's. The two were denied legal assistance and the right to a trial by jury. Outside the courtroom, Morris raised his young son, Charlie, alone while Steel supported herself working part time in a bar at night. McDonald's tried every trick in the book against them. The hamburger behemoth spared no expense, paying an estimated USD $20 million in legal fees and putting costly experts, company executives and board members in the witness box. As the trial progressed, a devoted group of supporters grew around Steel and Morris. The supporter's efforts aided more than 70 witnesses to testify on the pair's behalf in court, including; internationally renowned experts, nutritionists, environmentalists, cattle ranchers, ex-McDonald's workers, turncoat "McSpies" and a former Ronald McDonald actor from the US.
Through interviews with key witnesses and exploration of related events, McLIBEL explores the key issues of the case:
Are McDonald's products healthy and nutritious - as its ads have claimed - or is it junk food?
Are high-fat diets linked to heart disease, cancer and obesity?
Does McDonald's advertising exploit children?
Are McDonald's suppliers cruel to animals?
Does cattle ranching and disposable packaging damage the environment?
Does having a McJob mean low wages, no unions and bad working conditions?
For the first time in history, a multinational corporation's business practices were put on trial as McDonald's internal policies and procedures were opened up to public scrutiny. And a very different McDonald's emerged than that which is portrayed via its annual $2 billion advertising budget.
Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, the publicity, controversy and protests grew, with millions of the now notorious "What's Wrong With McDonald's" leaflets being handed out all over the world. Volunteers helped create and maintain the now famous www.McSpotlight.org website ("The blueprint for all activist sites" - Wired Magazine), providing up-to-the minute information to millions of people worldwide (including the media) that became fascinated with the case. As the negative publicity spiraled out of control, McDonald's top executives flew to London from the U.S. for secret talks with Steel and Morris in an attempt to settle out of court. No chance. The talks were secretly taped and are featured in McLibel.
The McLibel trial lasted 313 days and, along with a 23-day appeal in 1999, resulted in a mixed verdict, with damning rulings made against McDonald's core business practices. The McLibel 2 were ordered to pay £40,000 damages (USD $76,000), but refused to pay, declaring McDonald's "didn't deserve a penny." At the end of the trial, the case was described by commentators as "the worst corporate PR disaster in history." McDonald's backed down from applying for an injunction to prevent the pair from leafleting; sending the McLibel 2 to jail would not improve public opinion about the company.
On Sept. 20, 2000, the McLibel 2 launched a new case (known as Steel and Morris vs. UK) against the UK Government in the European Court of Human Rights. They argued the marathon McLibel trial and UK libel laws breached the European Convention on Human Rights Article 6 (Right to a Fair Trial) and Article 10 (Right to Freedom of Expression). Steel and Morris traveled by train to Strasbourg - this time supported by a team of lawyers - for the hearing.
Finally, on Feb.15, 2005, the McLibel 2 received e-mail notification that they had won the final stage of their legal marathon. The European Court of Human Rights declared the case had breached their rights to a fair trial and freedom of expression. Specifically, it ruled UK laws had failed to protect an individual's right to criticize massive corporations whose business practices can affect people's lives, health and the environment. This moment of triumph is the final scene in the movie.
McLIBEL is not about hamburgers: McLIBEL is about freedom of speech, multinational corporations, the power they wield over our everyday lives and how two brave people are changing the world.