Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index



to e-mail us:

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction


John Vidal

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase McLibel

Title: McLibel
Author: John Vidal
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1997
Length: 354 pages
Availability: McLibel - US
. McLibel - Canada
  • Burger Culture on Trial
  • Includes a Diary of the Trial (a basic chronology)
  • Includes an Afterword from the McLibel Two
  • The US edition has an Introduction by Ralph Nader
  • McLibel is apparently out of print in the UK. Curious.

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B : good account of a fascinating case -- but needs to be brought up to date

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Business Week A- 12/1/1998 David Leonhardt
The Economist . 21/6/1997 .
The Guardian B+ 8/5/1997 Anthony Julius
The Nation . 24/11/97 Carl T. Bogus
New Scientist A 24/5/1997 Fred Pearce
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 16/11/1997 Sarah Lyall

  Review Consensus:

  An interesting case, fairly well presented by Vidal -- but practically all are disappointed by some aspects of it

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) well-paced, engaging book (.....) He is sympathetic to the two defendants, David Morris and Helen Steel (...) But Vidal remains a trustworthy raconteur.(...) Vidal falters only when embarking on a lengthy, disconnected discussion of global capitalism today." - David Leonhardt, Business Week

  • "Some fair points are scored (.....) But Mr Vidal also talks a lot of twaddle." - The Economist

  • "His book is not just a judgment on the case, it's also a judgment on the legal process, and on the laws of defamation. (...) The book is also a judgment on the culture of multinationals. So, how convincing is that judgment? Vidal is probably right about McDonald's itself. But he then treats the company as representative of global business as such (.....) The case against our defamation law is only sketchily made." - Anthony Julius, The Guardian

  • "Unfortunately, Vidal does nothing so well as convey the trial's tedium. Much of the book has all the excitement of reading a trial transcript -- which, I suspect, is how Vidal gathered much of his material." - Carl T. Bogus, The Nation

  • "(A) serious examination not just of the claims against McDonald's -- on everything from waste recycling programmes and a burger's nutritional value to the company's marketing methods, animal welfare and what precisely constitutes a rainforest -- but also of a particular brand of American corporate culture and the iniquitous operation of British libel law." - Fred Pearce, New Scientist

  • "(A) detailed and at times riveting look at two ordinary citizens' long, strange trip through the thickets of the British legal system as they fought charges from one of the world's biggest corporations (...) Vidal's book, which includes his own digs at McDonald's and other large companies, is most interesting when he sticks to the story of Steel and Morris, who emerge as stubborn and highly principled, if occasionally overwhelmed." - Sarah Lyall, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       In the mid-1980s an organization called London Greenpeace (not affiliated with the group generally simply known as Greenpeace) began handing out leaflets providing information about (and criticizing) the popular and well-known fast food outfit McDonald's. It became -- so one of the activists -- "London Greenpeace's most successful campaign by far." McDonald's was less than thrilled by the group's success, and eventually took legal action. In 1990 they threw "the legal book at London Greenpeace", demanding an end to the distribution of the material about the company, and an apology -- otherwise McDonald's would begin a court case, charging libel. Three members of London Greenpeace did apologize, but David Morris and Helen Steel did not. So began the so-called McLibel trial -- which became the longest trial ever in England
       McDonald's strategy was, apparently, simply to overwhelm and crush the two defendants. An immensely profitable mega-multi-national, it could afford to devote whatever resources necessary -- and more. The bizarre and byzantine British libel laws make almost any claim a tortuous and complex and confused and costly process. (Vidal does a good job of explaining some of this arcana -- and the consequences thereof.) Morris and Steel, however, were perhaps the one type of defendant that stood some sort of chance against McDonald's: they had practically nothing to lose (both had essentially no money) and both were willing to fight for their ideals. In addition, McDonald's erred badly in issuing their own leaflet in which they denounced the defendants as liars, allowing Morris and Steel to counterclaim libel as well. (It seems to us that if ever a company did not get its money's worth for legal advice it was McDonald's in this case.)
       McDonald's eventually "won" the case, but at considerable cost -- it was a PR nightmare, proving at least one of the basic points behind London Greenpeace's efforts, showing what McDonald's (like all big business) can, will, and does do to all who stand in their way. McDonald's looked like a big bully, the two defendants like poor idealists. In fact, McDonald's court victory was also somewhat hollow: in what appear to be their megalomaniacal efforts at overkill they took the imprudent step of claiming that all of the statements in the disputed "Factsheet" distributed by London Greenpeace were libellous (yet another astonishingly foolish legal blunder). The court held that, in fact, not all the statements were libellous, giving further credence to the anti-McDonald's statements.
       (The saga continued after the court case (and publication of this book) -- though press coverage in the United States about the ongoing events has been almost non-existent. In Fast Food Nation (see our review) Eric Schlosser reports that the defendants appealed the verdict and that the Court of Appeals overruled parts of the decision (finding additional assertions made in the "Factsheet" not to have been libellous) and reduced the damages owed. The House of Lords declined to hear a further appeal, but the defendants have now filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights. See the seminal McSpotlight for additional information. And, in the interest of equal time: see the official McDonald's site -- not that they seem to have much to say about the matter (just as they didn't have anything to say to Mr. Vidal, despite his repeated requests for their side of the story.))
       Surprisingly, the impact of this case has not been particularly lasting (and, in fact, seems never to have been very great in the corporate heartland, the U.S. of A.). The book, McLibel, is even apparently out of print in Britain (perhaps the publishers are waiting for the final final resolution before issuing a revised and updated edition), while McDonald's flourishes. Of course, McDonald's enormous advertising budget allows the company to drown out the pictures of reality and replace them with the jolly and incessant commercials that portray McDonald's in quite a different light. It certainly seems to work: inexplicably (at least to us), people still flock to the golden arches and consume the products that are sold there (see Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (see our review) for just some of the reasons why, in our opinion, that is probably ill-advised).
       Vidal's book at least makes a lot of the information about the trial more readily accessible. He gives a decent account of what the trial was about, and a damning (and not entirely fair-minded) account of multinational practices and policies and the danger they pose. Regrettably, he is not entirely even-handed in his criticism, thereby undermining what are on the whole valid arguments and points. The account of the trial is also very selective and somewhat superficial, with a bit more of the human interest aspect than we care for, though we suppose people like that type of colour.
       For now McLibel is the standard text on a case of great significance. It can certainly be recommended. We do hope, however, that there will soon be a definitive and less hurriedly written version, recounting the whole of the McLibel affair (covering the case and all of the appeals). For now this book -- and the useful McSpotlight site -- must suffice.

- Return to top of the page -


McLibel: Reviews: McLibel - the film: McDonald's: John Vidal: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       British journalist John Vidal writes for The Guardian

- Return to top of the page -

© 2001-2009 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links