Fast food, slow witted: the story of the McLibel

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The oddest news of all in the last week or so has been the coverage of the McLibel case, which has been reported everywhere as if the losing side actually won. In case you have been away at the South Pole writing a symphony for the last five years, let me recap briefly. A large American firm called McDonald's which sells hamburgers in fast food outlets decided to sue two anarchists who had been handing out leaflets in the street saying that McDonald's was a nasty big capitalist firm which chopped down rainforests and tortured chickens (not true, apparently).

Now, McDonald's has a widespread reputation for being quick to sue people for libel, so I must be careful here. I do not want to be sued for libel. Nor do I want the lawyer from The Independent ringing up to say that my piece about McDonald's sails a bit near the wind, and it would be wiser if I wrote about Jonathan Aitken or devoted a whole article to somewhere that had recently gone safely out of business. But I think I can at least speculate on why McDonald's decided to sue two jolly anarchists for handing out a leaflet, a decision which in retrospect was one of the most unfortunate decisions that McDonald's has ever made, not counting its decision to sell its hamburgers outside the US.

Hold on, my phone is ringing.

Lawyer: "Mr Kington, I wonder if you could modify that last sentence."

Me: "In what way?"

Lawyer: "Well, you suggest that the world would be a happier place if McDonald's had kept its hamburger operations at home."

Me: "I certainly do. The world would be a happier place if the burger had never been invented."

Lawyer: "Hmm. Well, I don't mind you saying that. But you'll have to be careful about what you say about the burgers made by McDonald's."

Me: "Why? Do they have a reputation for being quick to sue for libel?"

Lawyer: "Lawdy, lawdy, Mr Kington, where have you been all these years? We must never say that someone is quick to sue for libel, or they might sue us for libel."

Me: "I didn't say they were quick to sue for libel. I said they had a reputation for it."

Lawyer: "Did you say the reputation was well-founded?"

Me: "No, sirree."

Lawyer: "Mmmmm. OK. Carry on."

As I was saying, we can well speculate on why McDonald's decided to sue the two jolly anarchists. At one of its top-level meetings, one of its top executives may well have stood up and said:

"OK, guys. As you have heard, sales are dropping and profits are dropping, and our new products aren't doing too well, and even when we sell our burgers at a discount it isn't helping sales ..."

Hold on. Phone's ringing again.

Lawyer: "You can't say all that!"

Me: "Why not? It's all true. It was in the business pages the other day. The McDonald's American shareholders deeply unhappy, management bust-up forecast, marketing strategy goes badly wrong, etc, etc ..."

Lawyer: "Really?"

Me: "Yes. Honestly."

Lawyer: "If you say so. Carry on."

So this executive says, "OK, guys, this is what we are going to do. We are going to sue two unknown anarchists in Britain and initiate the longest- running libel case in history."

"Won't this make us look complete and utter idiots?" says someone on the board.

Hold on. Phone again.

Lawyer: "Just checking. Did this board meeting actually take place or are you inventing it?"

Me: "Will you stop interrupting? Some people are trying to get some work done round here."

Lawyer: "All right, Mr Wise Guy. You've gone too far. I am now suing you for libel on the grounds that you have maliciously portrayed the lawyer for The Independent as an incompetent and out-of-touch ninny."

The rest of this article is now sub judice.

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