The “McLibel” film last night opened with actors reading the apologies to McDonald’s (I had the punctuation wrong yesterday–sorry!) made by British television statements and newspapers. Now the British do apologize beautifully, and as a result I’ve taught my children that profuse apologies can diffuse a situation quite remarkably. (I sometimes think I’ve taught this far too well.) But the apologies to the burger giant were cringing and sickening. What the film didn’t convey well enough was that those who apologied did not do so without having had a very heavy hand descend. McDonald’s UK made it clear that money was no object: they would spend as much as it took. (They spent over £10 million on the trial.)
Two things undid McDonald’s. First, they went after, finally, two people with nothing to lose from a seven-year libel case. They were unemployed but educated and articulate–a group that existed then in Britain quite happily, on the dole and busy with theatre or activism or whatever–and they had no careers at stake. And they were wonderful, as the film shows so well. Decent, humorous, and committed. And daring, too: Dave and Helen secretly taped a private meeting with McDonald’s executives at which they were offered a settlement.
Second, the Internet came along. Once McSpotlight launched, there was no way McDonald’s could quash free speech in Britain, because details of the trial were immediately broadcast around the world. This is a case where information really did, I think, want to be free.
I’ve pulled out my McDonald’s file, with the original leaflet and the lawyers’ letters. Fortunately, they left me alone and did not continue to demand an apology in court; if they had, I might not be here today, at Berkshire Publishing.