DIARY OF THE McLIBEL APPEAL
This is a very brief initial summary of some of the matters raised during the McLibel appeal and the news from the proceedings. See also the document: 'Summary Of The McLibel Appeal Points', and the McLibel Support Campaign Press Release of 6th January. Apologies for any inaccuracies, but quotes will be checked with the official daily transcripts when these have been obtained [they cost around 600 pounds per day].
The McLibel Defendants (Helen Steel & Dave Morris) are appealing in the British courts against the parts of the Judge's verdict which went against them and over some of the disturbing legal aspects of the case - the Court of Appeal hearing is expected to last over 5 weeks. Helen & Dave are appealing to protect the public's right to freedom of speech.
They are seeking to overturn the UK's unfair and oppressive libel laws - challenging the denial of Legal Aid and the right to a jury trial, and laws stacked in favour of Plaintiffs. They are arguing that multinational corporations should not be allowed to sue for libel.
The two Defendants, and indeed most informed observers, believe that they won a great legal and moral victory against the McDonald's Corporation, who on July 18th 1997 abandoned all legal action to try to halt the publication of the "What's Wrong With McDonald's?" leaflets or make any claim for costs.
Before the appeal hearing began on 12th January the defendants had already served hundreds of pages of written submissions in response to the 762 page Judgment of the McLibel trial judge, Mr Justice Bell.
Helen Steel and Dave Morris are representing themselves, and opposed by McDonald's legal team led by Richard Rampton QC. The case is being heard by Lord Justice Pill, Lord Justice May and Lord Justice Keane in Court 1 of the Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand, London WC2.
McLIBEL APPEAL - WEEK 1
DAY 1 - 12th January 1999
There was substantial media interest throughout the day, which tailed off as the week went on. McDonald's issued a Press Release misrepresenting the McLibel judgment and falsely claiming to have won on points not found in their favour by Mr Justice Bell. Amazingly, however, they 'welcomed' and 'expressed satisfaction' with that verdict, hence accepting its damning findings against their core business practices.
Before the hearing today began, the defendants rose to explain the situation with the House of Lords petition, and to make an application for a postponement of the Appeal, until their petition was considered by the House of Lords - but Lord Justice Pill announced that the House of Lords Appeal Committee had convened, apparently before court that very morning, and had rejected the defendants' petition (despite not having the necessary background documentation). There was no alternative but to press on with the proceedings.
The defendants opened by explaining that the nature and scope of the case was so unprecedented that the Court of Appeal must ensure that decisions would be made following this appeal to protect the public interest. It was a historic and golden opportunity to re-appraise the fundamentals of libel laws and procedures, and the effect they are having (a form of mass censorship) on the public's freedom to express their views about vitally important matters of public debate.
In particular the case was unprecedented due to:
The defendants explained to the court that, whatever the House of Lords had ruled, they were representing themselves up against a fully resourced and experienced legal team. They were not fully prepared, and were seeking the 'protection of the court' (to ensure the defence case would be as fully put and understood as possible) in a fair hearing and resolution of these important legal issues.
The defendants argued that multinational corporations and other such powerful institutions, should have no right to sue for libel as it is in the overriding public interest that they be subjected to unfettered scrutiny and criticism, since they have huge power and influence over many people's lives, and the environment . This would be in line with the bar on governmental organisations suing for libel.
They submitted that, if there be a right to sue, then it should be enough for a defendant to show 'reasonable belief' in the words complained of. Alternatively that it should be enough to show that the issues are of public importance or are a response to a perceived attack on the rights of others (eg. by multinationals against society, animals and the environment etc). They cited recent UK and European judgments to show how defamation law is moving in that direction.
In any case, they submitted, the first Plaintiff (the McDonald's Corporation) didn't trade in the UK and should not be allowed to sue for libel.
DAY 2 - 13th January 1999
He denied that multinationals could be compared to governmental bodies (who are barred from taking action for libel) as they don't run people's lives. However, he said that next century it may be right - there might be evidence to show multinationals were running the lives of citizens of a particular country.
Lord Justice Pill said that he had difficulty in seeing why the first Plaintiff is involved at all in the case since they don't trade in the UK. This unnerved Mr Rampton who then attempted to justify this by explaining that McDonald's UK is a subsidiary of the US Corporation, all its profits go to Chicago, the brand is American and 'the person in the street thinks of McDonald's being a US operation'. The defendants pointed out later that this line directly contradicts most of the publicity and propaganda put out in the UK by McDonald's.
Mr Rampton also argued, somewhat desperately, that to allow free criticism of companies would cause 'damage to commercial interests on an enormous scale' and to the fabric of the economy. But he accepted that recent UK judgements had established that those with a duty to publish material on matters of public interest could successfully defend a libel case if they could show that the sources they relied on were authoritative (even if the material was later found to be untrue). Mr Rampton asserted that this 'duty' should only apply to the mainstream media because of their "unique role in supplying to the public information which the public needs in order to run their lives - who to vote for, where to spend money, where to send the children to school etc.", and the fact that the media is regulated, although he admitted that this was only 'self-regulation'. The Lord Justices questioned him as to why this should not apply to consumer groups and campaigning organisations (like London Greenpeace), and indeed the public in general - Mr Rampton appeared to concede that this was the case if the matter was of urgent public importance.
DAY 3 - 14th January 1999
The Lord Justices expressed serious general concern about 2 of the infiltrators remaining in London Greenpeace after the writs were served in 1990 and asked for more detailed submissions to be made on this matter.
The defendants explained they were exhausted and needed more preparation time.
DAY 4 - 15th January 1999
He rejected defence claims that McDonald's had hoped for a short 'show trial' (which he had formally estimated before trial as due to last '3-4 weeks') - it was brought for a proper purpose of obtaining 'vindication' of their business practices. McDonald's would have abandoned legal action if only the defendants had 'apologised' for all of the criticisms. [This is despite the fact that the judge found many of the key points to be proven]. He added that 'no sane man' will bring proceedings unless they are going to be 'effective', unless they had more money than they needed - it wasn't clear if this was an indirect attack on his clients!
After lunch on Friday, the defendants began their reply to Mr Rampton's points of the week, but late on Friday afternoon, aware that there was insufficient time to finish their submissions, the Defendants asked for further time the following week to complete them. This was refused, and shortly after, Helen, under enormous pressure to truncate important submissions, became exasperated (with the impossible situation they were in) and unable to continue. The defendants made an application to adjourn, explaining that they were exhausted after the first week's submissions coming on top intensive preparation to comply with orders made in the weeks before the appeal. They had been getting an average of 4 hours sleep a night and were in a perpetual 'crisis' trying to keep up with the furious pace, catch up on preparations they'd not been able to make before the hearing started, and to sort out all the documentation strewn around their houses. They could not spend all weekend preparing as the Judges suggested since Dave was a full-time single father, and Helen worked in a bar at the weekend.
The Lord Justices refused the application, then set an impossibly tight schedule for the rest of the appeal, although eventually they allowed the defendants half an hour the following week to finish their submissions on the legal issues - not nearly enough.