In the mid 1980s London Greenpeace wrote a fact sheet and started handing it out in front of McDonalds in North London. In 1990 the McDonalds corporation issued libel writs against 5 of the activists. The ploy nearly worked. 3 of the five backed down, apologised and retracted their claims. Two of them didn’t. Helen Steel and David Morris refused. What ensued was, at the time, the longest trial in English history. It soon became known as ‘the McLibel trial’. An unemployed postman and a gardener working part-time in a bar, with no support from the state, and forced to rely solely on the kindness of others and their own wits, took on one of the largest corporations on the planet.
I distinctly remember the McLibel case standing out like a beacon. Not only could normal people take on the ‘masters of the universe’, but they were doing it and winning. The ruling came down, and the Judge found in favour of Steel and Morris on several of the allegations in the factsheet and McDonalds on the others. But it didn’t stop there, Steel and Morris appealed the decision. And when that eventually failed they took the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights for breaching their right to a fair trial. At the beginning of 2005 the European Court found in favour of the ‘McLibel 2’.
That year Franny Armstrong, working with Ken Loach and the team at Spanner Films, put together a documentary explaining what exactly had happened. The film was called, McLibel. The film went on to win numerous awards, I would argue, as much for it’s excellent film making as it was for the inspiring story of its protagonists. That year Helen Steel and David Morris did an interview with Democracy Now that is still well worth another listen if you get the chance.
Twelve years down the line, and much has changed. In one respect many of the State’s nastiest little secrets have been increasingly finding their way onto the front pages of the newspapers. The reality is that many of these secrets were already documented, but because of the stranglehold the establishment holds on the mass media they received little public scrutiny. However, as I mentioned in a previous post, sometimes the leak becomes a flood and then even the establishment media is forced to pretend to be unbiased. Since 2005, it has come to light that the UK secret police were highly involved with London Greenpeace at the time, and had even went as far as deceiving their way into Helen Steels’ private life.
I didn’t know at the time that I wrote the review for Peace News that either London Greenpeace or Helen Steel had been secretly targeted by the State. But in hindsight, and with what we now know, it was highly likely. However, now that we do know, it does raise the question in who’s interest does the State act. When the State uses secret police against UK citizens to protect the profits of US multinationals, the fundamental nature of democracy comes into question.
All that being said, it is worth remembering that not only does the fight continue, but that as long as there are expoiters, there will always be exploited willing to take a stand. This May Day, Tuesday 1st May 2018, BFAWU workers from UK McDonalds will be on strike. Fast Food Justice explains “The Bakers’ Union members are striking for £10 an hour, a choice of fixed hour contracts, the end of unequal pay for young workers, and for union recognition”. May Day is not just a time to remember our past struggles, but it is a time to come together and support our brothers and sisters. Hasta siempre.
The review of McLibel was published by Peace News in the July 2005 issue. I believe it has now been consigned to their archives, as that link directs to a strangely clipped version. However to read it in full or to download a text version of the article please click through to the page.