McLIBEL is a straightforward documentary about two court cases involving two tree-hugging hippies. Back in 1986 these two helped put together and distribute a leaflet accusing McDonalds of five things: selling food that contributed to cancer and heart disease; deliberately manipulating children with advertising; exploiting their workers through low pay, poor conditions and restrictions on unionisation; damaging the rainforest through intensive cattle-rearing; and cruelty to animals. McDonalds decided to sue the hippies for libel in the UK, a country where the libel laws are notoriously favourable to the plaintiff and the defendants are not eligible for legal aid.
As is know well-known, the judge in the case decided against the hippies and in favour of McDonalds ON BALANCE but only because the hippies didn't have enough cash to fly in witnesses. Indeed, even without cash, they still managed to get the judge to rule that Maccy D did in fact exploit kids, pay low wages and screw over little fluffy bunny rabbits, I mean, cows. So, while Maccy-D won the battle they truly lost the war. Back in the day, the issues of epidemic obesity and environmental damage were not widely discussed in the mainstream media. But during the case, the hippies got free publicity for their cause and donations to find a website. Even better, in February 2005 they successfully took the UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges found unanimously that the UK libel laws were an infringeing free speech. So, it really was a case of McDonald's scoring an own goal.
All this is well and good, but one does slightly wonder what the point of this documentary is. The issues raised by these two campaigners are now thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream, so that even to a greedy, capitalist bastard like myself, it seems self-evident that kids should not be exposed to junk food TV commercials. You can barely switch on the radio without hearing of some Government iniative to tackle obesity. I am grateful to these two courageous campaigners for refusing to be intimidated by Big Business, and for standing up for consumer rights. And while this story would make for a great article in Vanity Fair, it does not make for great cinema. Indeed, the director of this piece relies on the strength of the story to mask the fact that she has no understanding of cinema as a medium. Not only are the production values poor, and the re-enactments of the court-room drama ropey, but she relies entirely on bald statements of fact. To use the tired cliche - "a picture paints a thousand words". No scientist boring me with facts about cancer is going to make me forego my Chicken Nuggets as quickly as seeing Morgan Spurlock chunder his quarterpounder out of the window of his car. Evidently, the lard-buying public agrees with me. It is SUPERSIZE ME, not McLIBEL, that got Maccy D to change it's evil ways.
McLIBEL was originally released as a TV doc in 1996 and got a brief cinematic release in spring 2005. It is back on UK screens to coincide with the DVD release.