Small, Furry Mammals

The McLibel media strategy arose from a simple premise: this story has to be told. Most people have been affected by McDonald's in one way or another - working in a store, being nagged by children, stumbling through litter, suffering ill-health or enjoying their burgers - and the corporation's influence continues to increase as they relentlessly pursue their "global domination strategy" (to use their own words). Two people investing their lives to stand up to such a force has got to be a great story in anybody's book.

Not so the British media's flimsy paperback, it seemed. Five years ago, when I first got involved, the trial had been running for six months and was being pretty much ignored by the mainstream media. I initially assumed this was because they couldn't see a dynamite story if it went off in their psions, but I soon learnt that the reality was much more sinister.

Over the last 15 years McDonald's have employed a very successful censorship strategy. It works like this. Almost anyone who says anything critical about them gets a legal letter. For example, in 1984 the BBC suggested in a programme in their 'Nature' series that McDonald's is connected with the destruction of tropical rainforest. McDonald's legal letter demanded a retraction of the criticisms and an apology. Not wanting a court case or damages - which can potentially cost millions - the BBC backed down and apologised. Crucially, the allegations about rainforests were never tested in court. Some time later, Prince Philip allegedly made a similar comment about McDonald's and the rainforests ("So you are the people who are tearing down the Brazilian rain forests and breeding cattle"). The legal letter he received referred to the BBC having already apologised over the same allegation. He backed down. Various other organisations later apologised after getting similar letters. And so, without ever having to prove whether they ARE actually involved in rainforest destruction, McDonald's successfully intimidated the media into avoiding the subject. The same tactic worked across a whole range of criticisms levelled at the company, as the company went about threatening more than 90 groups with legal action. Everyone from The Guardian, Daily Mirror and The Sun to the Scottish Trade Union, New Leaf Tea Shop and a children's theatre group received a legal letter. Not one of them defended their criticisms in court.

Of course, we will never know how deliberate this strategy was on McDonald's behalf - whether they fully realised the long-term effects or whether they were just knee-jerking to each individual case as it arose. Either way, the effects have been extraordinary in silencing the media and creating a climate of self-censorship. I came across this attitude time and time again over the years. Several TV stations and newspapers pulled McLibel stories at the last minute and chat-show producers briefed me that I couldn't mention "the issues". (It feels fairly ridiculous talking about fighting a company that produces burgers without being allowed to explain why.)

McDonald's also use the power of their advertising dollars to stop negative stories being told. The Corporation allegedly threatened to remove 80,000 pounds worth of advertising from The Independent (ho ho) after the newspaper ran a front-page story about a secret settlement meeting. This was a particularly clever move on McDonald's behalf, as The Independent had been one of only two UK papers covering the trial in any depth. Not any more.

All of which meant that, in mid-1995, it was a small group of media lawyers who were deciding what the public could hear about McLibel. And there isn't much chance of a lawyer risking their job by recommending that their newspaper go ahead and print an article which could land them in court. As our own lawyer (ho ho 2) says, "One has the distinct feeling that if the (programme/article) were not about McDonald's but Joe's Cafe, the broadcasters' editorial courage might return."

Luckily those good people at the US Military had invented us a solution. The internet. Fast, global, accessible, uncensorable. Over a six month period, about twenty core volunteers built 'McSpotlight', a website dedicated to 'McDonald's, McLibel, Multinationals'. This time was impossibly exciting for all sorts of reasons: we were in uncharted waters and had free rein over the new media; we were finally going to get the story out the way we wanted to tell it; there was nothing McDonald's could do; everyone was shagging each other. I guess that last part isn't crucial (or accurate) were the official story ever to be told. By great fortune, we bumped into the xs4all crew online and they swept us off our feet. Not only did they agree to host the site - which was crucial as it had to be based outside the reach of the UK's ridiculous libel laws - but they also quickly brought us up to speed on internet law. Fresh from their run-in with the Scientologists, they were full of ideas on how to prevent McDonald's from ever censoring the story again. In particular, they came up with the then unheard-of idea of using mirror sites - whereby exact copies of McSpotlight would be running from different servers in different countries. If McDonald's chopped off one head, another could grow somewhere else. Another key idea was 'the kit', which is a squashed version of the site available for anyone to download onto their own harddisc and keep safe. After a week or two there were a couple of hundred copies scattered around the world. This must have been pretty galling to McD's, as their original motivation for suing Helen and Dave way back when was to stop the information in the leaflets getting to the public.

McSpotlight was previewed in January 1996 at the first Next Five Minutes conference. The response we got there gave us an inkling of what was to come when Helen and Dave officially launched the site in London that February. We now like to claim that we've had the most press coverage of any website in the world ever. Which might just be true. Time magazine, der Speigel, Sydney Morning Herald, Times of India, Tagezeitung, Wired, Daily Mail, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Australian, LA Times, Helsingen Snomat and so many others that we ran out of cardboard boxes to store them in. And then America's largest selling paper, USA Today, put McSpot on the front cover and the world's biggest documentary show, 60 Minutes', did a feature. The site has also been mentioned in quiz shows, studio debates, opinion pieces, legal text books, PhD thesis, court cases and parliament.

Web stats don't mean nuffink, of course, but hey. The main xs4all site has now had over 70 million hits - not including the US mirror, which has contributed at least the same again - and it's still getting 2 million hits a month. One particular regular visitor was "", which accessed McSpotlight over 2000 times in the first week. Many people cite the publication of the Starr Report as the day the internet came of age, but we prefer to think it was on the week of the McLibel verdict, when we had the result up within 10 minutes of the Judge's ruling - a good 20 minutes before any other media outlet - and when 2.2 million people dropped in.

There are many reasons for this success. Firstly, burgers. We couldn't really have picked a more high-profile opponent - everyone wants to hear the dirt on success stories of their calibre. Add that to the trial, which was fast becoming legendary, and we were guaranteed mega-hits. Secondly, content. Certainly at the time of the launch, most websites were happy to show off their gifs and <hr>s, but none seemed concerned about whether their existence had any point. With all the research from the trial - witness statements, legal documents, press cuttings, interviews - at our disposal, we soon had 10,000 pages online. (Actually that may not be true. Noone can remember how many it was.) After a year or so it jumped up to 200,000 when we added all 313 days of court transcripts - a first in many respects. Thirdly, wit. We didn't want to suffer a similar fate to many of the activist websites of the time, through which only the hardiest fanatic could wade. Our task was not difficult as the McDonald's ethos provides such rich pickings. Hopefully this attitude also translated into the design, which aimed to be confident, intuitive and impressive in its own right and which was generally being overlooked at this time. Fourthly, nerds. McSpotlight was groundbreaking in many ways and attracted a lot of publicity and traffic from the geek population. For example, the "Tour of McDonald's website", not only utilised the brand-new frames function, but also invented the technique of mixing two sites in one - we linked to pages from McDonald's own website on one side and displayed our commentary on the other. Wired called it "truly inspirational". We were also quick off the ground to incorporate a Debating Room into the site, which has proved immensely popular to this day. Fiftly, people. We were inundated with professionals offering to contribute corporate code/ designs/ skills/ enthusiasm to something with a bit of a point. But probably the largest reason for its success is censorship. Here was a genuine example of censored material finding a new audience via an uncontrollable new medium. And who doesn't want to see what it is that the Big Boys don't want us to know?

However, for me, McSpotlight was just a diversion from the real reason I got involved with McLibel: to make a TV documentary about the trial. Throughout the whole saga I was convinced that the mainstream TV would welcome such a film with open arms - especially given the dross that goes out day after day - as it has all the elements needed for a top documentary. From spies and secret recordings to global icons versus the underdogs, I felt there was no way the TV companies would reject our proposals. But reject them they did. So we decided to go ahead and make the film off our own backs, with no funding. (For selfish reasons, I was quite glad they wouldn't commission at this early stage as there's no way a first-time film maker would have been given the opportunity to handle such an important story for a major network.) The film was made over two and a half years, by a volunteer crew which included the acclaimed director Ken Loach. (Get yourself off to 'My Name is Joe' if you haven't seen it yet. It's truly staggering.) He directed the courtroom reconstructions for us, ashamedly admitting during filming that he had once made a McDonald's commercial. Towards the end of the trial, the BBC decided to buy our film for a slot directly after the verdict. We were delighted. But a few days before transmission it was pulled for legal reasons. Channel 4 picked it up but, again, the lawyers put a stop to the broadcast. The film had become a victim of the very thing it portrayed: McDonald's censorship of the media.

So we turned to new forms of distribution: home video, cable & satellite, film festivals, mobile solar-powered cinemas and, of course, the internet. (Watch the whole film at Last month we held a 'Global Screening' to celebrate the start of the defendants' appeal in the High Court. From just one email message, 104 screenings in 19 countries were held and we estimate that about 8 million people watched the film. Which kind of makes me think that there's a lot of untapped potential in email. As a result of the screening, we have also secured our first 'real' broadcast, although I won't tempt fate by mentioning which country.

Not that I believe our efforts are going to make any inroads into McDonald's runaway success. Only yesterday someone said to me that some friends of his had stumbled across McSpotlight and were so outraged that from now on they'll only go to Burger King. Oh dear. All we hoped to do was to provide easily-accessible information to anyone who wanted to make informed choices about whether to give their money to multinational corporations. We never forced anyone to visit McSpotlight or watch the film. Which contrasts nicely with McDonald's attitude of spending 2 billion dollars each year on ensuring that no-one can turn on a TV, walk down a street, participate in sports or go to school without a red-wigged clown barging into their consciousness. Mammals and dinosaurs.

One last point. Did you know that the concept of the Ronald McDonald Houses for sick children was invented by an advertising agency?


McSpot guided tour of McDonald's website