Helen Steel, 31, and Dave Morris, 42, have become known as the McLibel Two. They have spent the last six years fighting a libel action brought against them by McDonald’s. The food giant claims the pair distributed a London Greenpeace leaflet containing libellous allegations about McDonald’s practices in relation to workers’ rights and environmental policy. Because no legal aid is available in libel cases, Steel, who works in a club, and Morris, a full-time single parent, are conducting their own defence, while
McDonald’s is employing the services of the eminent Richard Rampton QC. The case will shortly become the longest-running court case in British history.
Helen Steel: I think I first met Dave at “Stop the City”, a peace movement demonstration organised by London Greenpeace. This was in 1983, at the time of Greenham Common and loads of CND marches. London Greenpeace decided they’d take the protest to the root cause of it all, the financial centre of London. Dave was organising a meeting for people who’d been arrested during the protest. At the time, I was squatting in a house that had been empty for years. It had a really big room that was suitable for meetings so Dave arranged for the meeting to be held there. I didn’t really get to know him then, though. The first time we spent any amount of time together was when we got involved in a group called Harringey Community Action. One of the things we did was raise money for miners during the strike. Dave and I hitched up to Warsop together to stay with miners’ families.
It was good being there with him, because I was a lot younger then and less confident about speaking to people. If I’d gone on my own I probably wouldn’t have learnt much. But Dave would engage anyone in conversation and you’d get to hear about all their experiences. He’ll always chat to more or less anyone, although I think he tends to avoid company directors.
When all the McDonald’s stuff started, Dave was hardly involved in London Greenpeace - his son and his son’s mother had been involved in an accident and he was looking after them. In the little time he had left he was heavily involved in the anti-Poll Tax campaign. So when the writs arrived, Dave said he would go with the flow because he was so bogged down elsewhere. The writs were originally served on five of us and we all went to see some lawyers who were prepared to offer us advice.
The lawyers said that, with no money and no legal knowledge, we didn’t have a hope in hell - we’d just be banging our heads against a brick wall. The other three reluctantly decided to apologise. So Dave said, “Right, if you want to fight it I’ll come in with you.” And he’s been really enthusiastic about fighting it ever since.
There have been times when it has got too much for me, and Dave has carried us through. About three years after we got the writs we were having legal hearing after legal hearing and I felt that the judges just weren’t listening to us. Their QC claimed that our case was based on press cuttings and the judge made an order that we had to gather all our witness statements within three weeks. We didn’t know how to go about getting witnesses or the procedures you were supposed to go through, and we had really detailed issues to cover.
I really felt it was all too much. It seemed as though our original advice had been right. But Dave stepped in and rang round loads of people, like ex-McDonald’s workers, and got them to write down their own witness statements. It wasn’t the conventional way to do it, but it was all we could do in the time available. On the day of the deadline we handed in about 65 statements. The day after that, we had a hearing in front of a different judge and he put the dates back, which gave us more time to prepare. But without Dave, I might have packed it in.
He’s very calm and collected in court. If Rampton is saying something critical about us, Dave just lets it wash over him, whereas I let it get to me, which is daft. At one point in the trial the judge told Rampton not to make provocative comments - he said something like, “Mr Morris very sensibly keeps his head down but Ms Steel gets into a spat.”
We see each other about three times a week at the moment, to prepare for the closing speeches when we go back to court, but I’m sure we’d still see each other sometimes if we weren’t fighting the case together. We used to live in a housing co-op together. Dave used to play the guitar and everyone else would sit around and sing. One of the good things about living with Dave was that he was forever inviting people from all over the world back to the house. Once, two Polish women came to stay whom he’d met when he was in Poland. The women had been involved in Solidarity, so it was amazing hearing all about their lives under martial law.
There isn’t anything that we disagree upon politically. We occasionally have arguments about tactics, but we completely agree about our aims. We’re both fighting for a world based on co-operation and sharing rather than exploitation and oppression. In 30 years time I can see Dave organising a pensioners’ group, fighting for pensioners’ rights. And I’m certain we’ll still know each other because we believe in the same things and we want the same society.
DAVE MORRIS: The first time I really remember Helen is when we hitch-hiked up to a mining village during the miners’ strike. We went up to pass on money collected by Harringey Community Action, a group we were both founder members of, and to join in the early morning pickets. From that time onwards we were always close as colleagues, as activists. We saw things in a very similar way. Neither of us can stand oppression in any form, whether it’s of workers, consumers or animals. And neither of us are academics, neither of us have degrees. We’re both into activism, we believe in getting involved with what’s going on around us. I don’t think there’s anything we really disagree on.
During the printers’ strike at Wapping, Helen and I used to go to the picket lines two or three times a week. Standing on a picket line for hours in the middle of the night gave us a lot of time to explore what we believe in. Wapping was a very dramatic struggle that we both identified with and it solidified the friendship. At that time we also got an allotment together, by the canal in Tottenham. I liked the fact that it was just as important to Helen to try and grow organic food as it was to join a picket line.
We inherited a lot of strength from being involved in struggles together. Our experience in movements such as the anti-Poll Tax campaign have given us the confidence to know that people can stand up to bullies and beat them. Because we knew each other and had worked together in the past, we knew we could fight the McLibel case together.
Helen’s probably the ideal person to fight the case with - she’s the only person I know who’s more determined than I am. When she sets her mind to something, she’s unstoppable, and she’s totally uncompromising in standing up for her principles. One of the first things that attracted me to Helen was that she did a week-long hunger strike outside Harrods over Christmas to raise money for famine relief. That sort of commitment was very important in the early days, when we got the writs from McDonald’s. It was inconceivable for her to apologise for doing what she thought was right. She used to hate speaking up at meetings or events but now she’s able to stand up to the highly trained McDonald’s legal counsel. She managed to do it because she had to - because what she believes in is so important to her.
I had a lot of domestic problems when the writs were served, but Helen’s determination not to be intimidated made it possible for me to fight the case. It would be impossible to get through on my own - sometimes all the legal stuff gets so unreal it’s hard to keep your concentration and you need someone to bounce ideas off. Helen gets frustrated when we’re forced to waste time on arcane matters which side-track us from the main purpose of the case - to try and get the truth over to the public. Then she starts thinking that she’d rather be climbing a mountain or digging her garden. But she’s a stickler for detail, which is essential when you’re drafting up “further and better particulars of the defence of justification and fair comment”. She can be very stubborn about certain things, too. For instance, she absolutely hates any waste of paper. If we’ve got something to discuss and I want to fax it over she always says, “No, I don’t want any faxes,” because it’ll waste a sheet of paper. So I have to wait until we meet to discuss it.
The values that are promoted in our society are greed and status and competition, but Helen knows just how much potential people have to create a society that’s really worthwhile. And she also knows how weak those who are in power really are.
Normally, when we meet up we’re just going over legal matters, but we do socialise together as well. She came round last week for a meal. Lots of other people came over too and we had a singing session. I think Helen has tended to socialise less over the last few years and I think she regrets that. She was really pleased when she got her job as a bar worker in a club because she gets to meet lots of different people. And it takes her mind off the court case. Before the trial actually started and it looked as though McDonald’s was going to drop the case, Helen moved to Yorkshire to live on an organic farm. She wanted to live closer to nature than is really possible in London. But when we realised how long the case was going to go on for, she had to come back and live in London. I expect that she’ll end up spending a lot of time living and travelling in the countryside, while I prefer the urban environment as a base for trying to change things. I think we’ll keep in touch, though - we’ll send each other postcards. And I’ll definitely be visiting her on her farm - the food tastes so much better when it’s organic. I’ll take my son, Charlie, to visit her and we’ll help with the work. .