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McLibel

noun [uncountable]

a British court action for libel (the illegal act of writing false statements about someone) filed by the McDonald's corporation against environmental activists

'The British government … will now almost certainly have to reconsider the law on legal aid and libel. This could be the McLibel Two's great legacy …

In the 20 years since the London Greenpeace leaflets were first handed out, the debates about industrial food and corporations have grown enormously. The epic McLibel trial, it can now be seen, acted as a commentary on globalisation and helped to expose many of the dubious practices of giant corporations.'

The Guardian 15th February 2005

15th February 2005 witnessed the conclusion of what represents the longest case in English legal history, the trial referred to as McLibel, which has been running over a period of fifteen years.

the McLibel trial represents a landmark case in English legal history … because it has forced the UK government to review libel laws and it highlights issues of the right to freedom of speech for powerless individuals

In the mid-1980s, a London-based group of environmental activists put together a leaflet strongly criticizing the practices of the McDonald's chain of hamburger restaurants. The leaflet was called 'What's wrong with McDonald's: Everything they don't want you to know', and included controversial claims about the exploitation of restaurant workers, damage to the environment, and promotion of unhealthy food that could lead to obesity and heart disease. In 1990, McDonald's famously issued a libel writ against two of the campaigners, Helen Steel and David Morris, who had been distributing the leaflets outside McDonald's restaurants on the streets of London. The libel trial finally began in 1994, and it was not until three years later, after a case consisting of 20,000 pages of court transcripts, 40,000 pages of trial documents, and evidence from 130 witnesses, that a verdict was reached, upholding some of the allegations against McDonald's but ruling that Steel and Morris had libelled the company. After an appeal in 1999, Steel and Morris, by now dubbed the McLibel Two, were ordered to pay £40,000 in damages. The two vowed not to pay and in the next year took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that their rights to a fair trial and freedom of expression had been breached. Five years later, in February 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of Steel and Morris, awarding compensation of nearly £47,000.

The McLibel trial represents a landmark case in English legal history, not simply because of its length, but because it has forced the UK government to review libel laws and it highlights issues of the right to freedom of speech for powerless individuals who seek to expose the practices of powerful, wealthy corporations.

The term McLibel is mainly used as a noun modifier, occurring in phrases such as McLibel trial/case/writ. Though it seems there is so far no evidence for derived terms such as McLibellous and McLibelled, it remains to be seen whether the significance of the case paves the way for future use of the term in the context of comparable issues of libel legislation and freedom of speech.

Background – McLibel

McLibel is of course formed from the word libel with the prefix Mc-, from the name of the McDonald's fast food chain. During the late eighties and early nineties, the prefix Mc- began to enter productive use in English, adding strongly negative overtones to the meaning of the words it was attached to. Examples include McJob, a low-paid job with poor working conditions, McProfit(s), the profits of big businesses associated with exploitation and environmentally dubious practices, and McMansion, a large, opulent new house which does not fit in with its surroundings. The Mc- prefix has rapidly become synonymous with the idea of exploitation, vulgarity and poor quality.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 21st February 2005.

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