by Albert Beale
McDonald's causes cruelty to animals, untruthfully promotes its
food as nutritious, pays low wages, and exploits children by using
their susceptibility to advertising to persuade them to pressure
their parents. For what it's worth, that is now all "official".
On 19 June, Day 314 of the record-breaking libel case brought by
the US and UK McDonald's companies against London Greenpeace
campaigners Helen Steel and Dave Morris, Mr Justice Bell gave his
personal verdict. (McD successfully applied to have the case
heard without a jury.) The judge decided that McD _had_ been
defamed by some of the allegations in the London Greenpeace
"What's wrong with McDonald's?" factsheet; but he also ruled that
several of the most biting criticisms McD complained about had
been proved to be true.
As far as McD were concerned, they had been libeled by (at least
some of) the leaflet, and so had "won" the case. As far as Dave
and Helen were concerned, they had stood up to the threats of one
of the most litigious corporations in the world (in a way that
many British media organisations had failed to do over the years),
and had used the opportunity of the trial to spread the debate
over McD as never before: so they too could claim victory.
Given the circumstances of their David and Goliath struggle
(defending themselves without lawyers against a company putting
millions of pounds into the case), to have survived the legal case
intact, let alone to have won some of the arguments, means that
the victory is indeed Dave and Helen's.
The judge ruled that both Dave and Helen had some responsibility
for the publication of the factsheet - at least in the sense that
they were part of the London Greenpeace group which published it,
and generally supported the campaign. It wasn't legally necessary
to show that they had more specific involvement with its
production or distribution - if it had been, McD's case might well
have fallen at the first hurdle.
With the judge satisfied that Dave and Helen had been involved in
the publication, and that various of the allegations in the
factsheet were indeed defamatory, then the onus was on them to
have legally justified the allegations by bringing first-hand
evidence to show that they were true. MuckDonald's didn't have to
prove that the allegations were false. So, where the judge ruled
in McD's favour, it doesn't necessarily mean that he thought McD
had shown the allegations to be false, rather that Dave and Helen
hadn't been able to substantiate them.
Charges in the leaflet which had not - in the judge's view - been
substantiated included that of causing both destruction of
rainforests and starvation in the third world. Much of the
judge's reasoning here related to the precise definition of
"rainforest", and to the indirect nature of the links between the
meat industry and starvation. These indirect links were not, it
was ruled, straightforward enough to justify the factsheet's
specific link between McDonald's and third world hunger.
The part of the judgement relating to rainforests has elicited
criticism from Amazon expert Sue Branford. She gave evidence
during the trial that districts in Brazil which Mcdonald's
admitted were used for cattle for their beef had been deforested
to make way for cattle ranches during the 20-year period of her
visits to the area. At the time, Mr Justice Bell said that her
evidence was one of the most important contributions to the case.
The judge also said that the proportion of recycled paper in McD's
packaging was "small but nevertheless significant", so they were
unjustly defamed by the statement that "only a tiny proportion"
was recycled. And the factsheet's suggestion that there was a
serious risk of food poisoning from McDonald's food had not been
proved: some cases were inevitable because it was impossible to
eliminate all contamination however good hygiene systems were.
But the points which McD definitely lost were very significant.
According to the judge: "[the allegation that McDonald's] are
culpably responsible for cruel practices in the rearing and
slaughter of some of the animals which are used to produce their
food is justified, true in substance and in fact".
The judge said that some of McD's advertisements and literature
have claimed positive nutritional benefits for their food which
was not matched by the reality. And he decided that the evidence
_did_ show that McD customers who eat there several times a week
over many years, "encouraged by [McD's] advertising", increased
their risk of serious diseases. But he said that the relevant
section of the factsheet did unjustly defame McDonald's because
many of the people the leaflet was addressed to didn't eat there
often enough to suffer the ill effects!
(The judge helpfully went on to suggest a more reasoned and
temperate way of expressing the point the factsheet was trying to
make - a form of words about which, he said, McDonald's would have
had no just cause for complaint. But since his reworking of the
"McD's food can be bad for you" message entailed a sentence nearly
200 words long, it seems that Mr Justice Bell had better not turn
his hand to a leaflet-writing career if he decides that he's had
enough of judging after all this.)
The judge also found that "McDonald's advertising and marketing is
in large part directed at children, with a view to them pressuring
or pestering their parents to take them to McDonald's and thereby
to take their own custom to McDonald's. This is made easier by
children's greater susceptibility to advertising, which is largely
why McDonald's advertises to them quite so much." But, he said,
McD had nevertheless been unfairly defamed by the section of the
factsheet on advertising because the gimmicks used by McD to get
children there were not, as one of the allegations in that section
suggested, to cover up the true quality of the food - "the food is
just what a child would expect it to be".
Perhaps the least surprising part of the verdict was that
McDonald's "does pay its workers low wages, thereby helping to
depress wages for workers in the catering trade". But even here,
in the section on employment practices, the judge found that McD
had been defamed. He said that though McD were "strongly
antipathetic to any idea of unionisation", they did "not have a
policy of preventing unionisation" - so perhaps the almost
universal lack of unions in McDonald's around the world is a
A significant complication of the case was Dave and Helen's
counter-claim. Before the trial, McD issued press statements, and
leaflets to their customers in Britain, saying that their critics
were liars. Dave and Helen claimed that they, in turn, were
defamed by that accusation.
The judge decided that the two had indeed been defamed, because he
accepted that they both thought all the statements in the
factsheet were true even if, in the judge's view, some of them
weren't. But he went on to rule that this defamation by
McDonald's was covered by the legal concept of "qualified
privilege", in that they were responding to attacks on them in
material put out by the McLibel Support Campaign. So Dave and
Helen didn't win their counter claim.
As Dave and Helen asked at the press conference after the trial,
why is there no concept of legal privilege allowing ordinary
people to defend themselves against the attacks on their
well-being by companies like McDonald's? Indeed, in relation to
this point, the two will be appealing to the European Court of
Human Rights over the way that libel laws in Britain can be used
by unaccountable corporations to try to suppress criticism of
Each of the two McDonald's companies concerned was awarded 30,000
Pounds damages in respect of those accusations which Dave and
Helen had not, legally, justified. But they say they won't pursue
the two for the money. This makes sense given that 60,000 Pounds
is for McD a trivial amount - and given that there is no chance of
Dave or Helen being either willing or able to pay it.
There has as yet been no award of costs: McD could ask the court
to award them some, but since, again, Dave and Helen couldn't (and
wouldn't) pay them any, it seems likely that they won't bother.
And so far there is no sign of any injunctions to try to stop
distribution of the current version of the "What's Wrong with
McDonald's?" leaflet; this might also show some rare tactical good
sense on McD's part.
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Judge in his summary: "Not everyone, however, loves McDonald's"
Dave Morris at the press conference, about the judge's verdict:
"Well, that's one person's view, and he's entitled to his