NEW DOCUMENTARY REOPENS OLD MCDONALD'S WOUNDS

Movie Raises Issues of Nutrition and Child Exploitation

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- A documentary film could reopen old wounds for fast-food giant McDonald's Corp. as the independent film recalls the story behind the longest trial in British history that pitted McDonald’s against two Greenpeace activists the marketer accused of libel.
The judge in the trial ultimately scolded McDonald's because the company 'pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which their food did not match.'
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The documentary, McLibel, which opened June 10 in San Francisco, comes on the heels of two other nonfiction works -- Morgan Spurlock’s independent film Supersize Me and Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation -- as the latest jabs thrown at the Golden Arches, just as the chain rolls out ads featuring a buff Ronald McDonald as fitness guru.

Decade-long trial
McLibel, which was directed by Franny Armstrong and distributed by Cinema Libre Studio, follows the more than a decade-long libel trial against Helen Steel and Dave Morris, two Greenpeace activists. In a public-relations nightmare for the fast-food giant, the defendants accused McDonald’s of falsely touting its products nutritional value, exploiting children with its advertising, animal cruelty, underpaying workers and producing food that can cause heart disease.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s last week unveiled a creative campaign from Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, featuring its chief happiness officer-cum-personal trainer, Ronald McDonald. The clown spurs couch potato children to eat better and get involved in sports like biking, soccer, snowboarding and even basketball with global NBA star Yao Ming. In the fall, the marketer will promote a traveling show where Ronald enlists audience members to help his buddy, Arnie, become more active.

'What's wrong with McDonald's'
The court battle began in June 1994, nearly a decade after five London-based Greenpeace activists distributed leaflets that asked “What’s wrong with McDonald’s.” McDonald’s sued for libel in 1990, demanding they retract their claims and apologize or prove them in court. Three of the activists ceded but the other two, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, didn’t and built their own case with little or no legal aid. Once the trial began in earnest, it produced 59 witnesses for the defense and 71 from McDonald’s. By March 1995, it was the longest British libel trial and nearly 18 months later it became the longest trial of any kind in British history.

On June 19, 1997, Judge Justice Bell presented a 762-page decision that said McDonald’s couldn’t be blamed for Third World starvation or devastation of Central American rain forests. He nonetheless scolded McDonald’s, which "pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which their food did not match"; had exploited children in its advertising; and paid low wages, "helping to depress wages in the catering trade.”

Ordered to pay damages
In the end, the judge ordered Ms. Steel and Mr. Morris to pay 60,000 British pounds in damages, later reduced on appeal to 40,000 British pounds. They later appealed in 1999 and lost, but in September 2004, they took an action against the U.K. government in the Court of Human Rights, claiming that a lack of access to legal aid hurt their right to a fair trail. In February the court sided with the activists, giving the government three months to appeal.

At the time of the decision McDonald’s said, "The world has moved on since then and so has McDonald's." A spokeswoman repeated the line when asked about McLibel.

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