Archive‎ > ‎

Why won’t British TV show a film about McLibel? by Franny Armstrong

Is it really so dangerous? or are broadcasters cowards?

Underdogs, spies, a single father, a gardener, topical issues, historical significance, 20th-century icons and a man in a red wig - the McLibel Trial had all the elements of a ratings-winning, prime-time television documentary. The barrister Michael ansfield called it "the trial of the century". The legal expert Marcel Berlins couldn’t think of a case where "the cards have been so spectacularly stacked against one party".

In early 1995, eight TV production companies and I descended on Helen Steel and Dave Morris, the defendants, then went on to deluge the television channels with proposals. Three months later, the BBC didn’t feel "sufficiently enthusiastic" about the story, ITV said there wasn’t enough action in it and Channel 4 had decided to go with a three-hour dramatic reconstruction of the courtroom.

I thought the television channels had got it wrong. I knew a man with a Beta camera and an AVID edit suite, so I left my job and set out to make a balanced but hard-hitting documentary about the trial and the issues it raised.

Two days later, I owned a television production company, One-Off Productions (or "Oops, I’ve been sued and gone bankrupt" , for short). My shifting pool of about 20 volunteer technicians usually produced a crew far more experienced than me, but there were a couple of occasions when I ended up doing sound and camera myself. The most memorable of these followed McDonald’s decision to sponsor a summer funday at Dave Morris’s son’s playgroup. I had to handle digital camera, secret camera, two radio microphones and half a dozen McDonald’s security staff on my own, while pretending to be the mother of some mysteriously absent young children. A severe bout of food poisoning didn’t help.

As the case ambled its way towards becoming the longest in history, funding became more and more of a problem. We made a surprising amount selling our footage to news stations around the world (most requested shot: Helen and Dave preparing their cross-examination on the Tube) and begged the rest from McLibel fans.

Helen and Dave had persuaded an extraordinary list of more than 70 scientists, researchers and former McDonald’s employees to give evidence on their behalf, from the Secretary of the International Union of Food Workers to some of the world’s leading cancer experts. We interviewed many of them.

Then, by an absurd coincidence, my sister got drunk with a fellow student on her nutrition course who decided to admit - for the first time - that many years before she had been employed as a spy by McDonald’s. "Not McLibel?" said my sister. The spy later gave evidence for the defendants and appears in our film. We put her in the box marked " exclusives" , along with a secret meeting between the two sides and an interview with a former Ronald McDonald.

Talking to people on the other side was not so easy. When we wrote to McDonald’s expert witnesses asking for interviews, we received replies not from them, but from the corporation’s press office. Mike Love, head of press for McDonald’s UK (and, before that, agent for Margaret Thatcher) promised an interview after the verdict. (I have the pledge on tape.) Later, he said he’d never said anything of the sort. It seemed to us that the only way to include McDonald’s side of the story was to dramatise their evidence. But we didn’t know how to do drama (or documentary, for that matter, but we were learning fast). Ken Loach was undoubtedly the person to ask to direct that part of the film. He said yes. We fell off our chairs.

Twenty thousand pages of court transcripts and several hours on the phone to Loach later, we had chosen which parts of the proceedings to dramatise. It would have been a 14-hour mega-film if I’d had my way and not sacrificed any of the classic moments. (Helen Steel: " So are you saying, then, that as long as there is room in the dumps, there is no problem with dumping lots of McDonald’s waste in the ground?" Ed Oakley, McDonald’s executive: "I can see it to be a benefit, otherwise you will end up with lots of vast, empty gravel pits all over the country." ) We spent a day filming with 10 actors, one judge’s costume, two tables, several large books and some long black drapes.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 had decided to go ahead with its courtroom drama. I spoke to the producer, Dennis Woolf, and agreed to send him a rough cut of our film because he seemed like a nice man. Everyone who knew anything about film-making told me it was a terrible mistake to help the opposition.

But then Woolf spoke to his friend, who happened to be the editor of the BBC’s Heart Of The Matter, and who happened to have a spare episode in her next series, which happened to coincide with the upcoming verdict. After one table-thumping afternoon with Morris, she scheduled our film for BBC1, 10.30pm, June 30, 1997.

" Can we have a contract?" I asked naively, as we scurried between Manchester and London, cutting our film down to Heart Of The Matter’s 40-minute timeslot. " We’ll sort that out next week. Let’s concentrate on the editing." They could only afford to pay us £15,000, which wouldn’t even cover our debts, but they had 3.5 million viewers. Then, 10 days before transmission, the "L" word came up: the legal and editorial departments of the BBC demanded so many cuts the Heart Of The Matter team were no longer interested. And no, they wouldn’t pay us for the last two weeks’ work. Then they called back. We’ve decided to do our own 15-minute programme about McLibel. Can we buy all your best footage, at a very cheap rate? The day the verdict finally came, my story was swamped with newcomers. ITN and the BBC had cottoned on to the classic Tube shots and the massed photographers were staking out ladder-space from dawn. I felt agreeably smug turning down the requests for a feed from the defendants’ radio microphones as they came out of court to face their cheering supporters.

Helen: "This is weird. This is really weird." Dave: "What do we do? Do we stay here all day?" Crowd: "Woooooooooh, yeah." Cars: "Honk, honk, honk." So the judge ruled in McDonald’s favour, McLibel was the hottest story of the week and we were left with a 40-minute hacked version of the film and no transmission. There was a brief flurry of interest from Channel 5 and World In Action, but no one was prepared to take on McDonald’s. It had all been a waste of time. I lay in bed sulking and my granny phoned to say she’d waited up for Heart Of The Matter but couldn’t see anything about McDonald’s.

Coming back on the train from the Sheffield Documentary Festival a couple of months later, I bumped into Alan Hayling, commissioning editor for documentaries at Channel 4. Despite falling asleep mid-conversation, he said he was interested and took a tape. So far, so normal, but then he phoned a few days later, saying he wanted to broadcast it on Channel 4. He’d just have to check with the lawyers first. Their response: " McDonald’s would almost certainly sue Channel 4 and would almost certainly win." It might be tempting to dismiss us as enthusiastic amateurs who had forgotten to consider legal issues. But a top media lawyer had been advising us, for free, throughout

production, scrutinising rough cuts and suggesting changes to ensure 100 per cent accuracy. In his opinion, the film is fair comment and carries little risk of a libel suit.

And so we come to the crux of the matter. Is the film libellous, or are the media censoring themselves? Over the past 15 years, McDonald’s has threatened legal action against more than 90 organisations in the UK, including the BBC, Channel 4, the Guardian, the Sun, the Scottish TUC, the New Leaf Tea Shop, student newspapers and a children’s theatre group. Even Prince Philip received a stiff letter. All of them backed down and many formally apologised in court.

Well, if I were the BBC, I wouldn’t broadcast the film either. I wouldn’t want to risk damages, costs, injunctions and months in court. I wouldn’t want to fight a case where the burden of proof was entirely on me and I would have to prove every allegation from primary sources. I wouldn’t want to risk everything on one story. I would take notice of the long list of organisations that have apologised in the past. I might feel uneasy at ignoring such a high-profile case, but I would reassure myself that everyone else was ignoring it too.

Which is why it is the libel laws that are the problem, rather than the broadcasters. In 1993 the law was altered so that governmental bodies such as local councils are no longer able to sue for libel.This was to protect people’s right to criticise public bodies. Multinationals are fast becoming more powerful than governments - and even less accountable - so shouldn’t the same apply? With advertising budgets in the billions, it’s not as though they need to turn to the law to ensure their point of view is heard.

There are signs that Parliament is getting the message. Two early-day motions entitled McDonald’s And Censorship were sponsored by Jeremy Corbyn MP in 1994. But we are languishing far behind America, which has a constitutional right to freedom of speech.

So I think that the many commentators who said McDonald’s was stupid to sue Steel and Morris were wrong. The corporation was simply following a plan that has worked many times before. It had no way of knowing it was about to hit an immovable obstacle. In a sense, McDonald’s only error was to pick on two of the most stubborn and committed people in the world.

McDonald’s sensibly decided not to pursue its £360,000 damages or estimated £10 million costs, and abandoned its plans for an injunction preventing Steel and Morris from distributing anti-McDonald’s material. The defendants were ready to defy it anyway - a serious offence, which could land them in jail. It would not look good if these folk heroes were sent to prison for handing out leaflets. It was also clear by this stage that the attempt to prevent the public from hearing the criticisms had been a spectacular failure.

But, as the defendants prepare to go back to the High Court next month for the first preliminary hearing of their appeal, it looks as though our film will never be seen by a British TV audience. Instead, it is being distributed the new way: on the Internet, on home video, on cable TV in the US, at international film festivals, local screenings and by travelling solar-powered cinema.

The most frustrating thing about the whole affair? The last thing McDonald’s wants is to get McLibel into the news again. The trial was the worst thing that ever happened to the company. Suing over our film would raise all the same issues again. There’s really no point at all. Definitely not. Oh, go on then.

Franny Armstrong