The Big Issue; 24th February 1997

Welcome to McHell

The McLibel Two, who took on the mighty McDonald's in an epic legal battle, have put the whole fast-food business on trial. By John Vidal
It must rank as the costliest corporate miscalculation of all time. When McDonald's took on two self-styled anarchists Helen Steel and Dave Morris in 1994 its QC predicted that the trial would last three or four weeks with a judge presiding or "more likely six or seven weeks with a jury". Three years later - after a trial lasting 312 days - the McLibel case has become the longest of any kind in English history and a neverending public relations nightnare for the multinational fast-food chain. With the judge's verdict due sometime after Easter, it is already estimated to have cost McDonald's 10 million. This is nothing compared to the damage to its public image.

"We've put McDonald's on trial," says Dave Morris. "The public has become our jury, we've turned the tables on McDonald's and put them in the dock." For The McLibel Two, as Morris, 42, and Steel, 31- a former postman and gardenerhave been dubbed, the case has been an affirmation of consumer strength. "It shows the power of ordinary people when they are determined to fight for change."

The epic campaign against one of the world's most powerful retail giants began outside a McDonald's store in London's Strand in January 1984. Campaigners handed out an abusive leaflet against all fast food and McDonald's especially. "The American fastfood nightmare has invaded our streets. Fast food for fast people who are rushing about all over the place like nutters and who haven't got the time to even think what they're eating," it said. It claimed that millions of cattle were being slaughtered, that rainforests were being felled for ranches and concluded that "The whole thing stinks". Readers were encouraged to send off for a detailed fact sheet from London Greenpeace, a small group of "anarchists" and nothing to do with Greenpeace International.

When McDonald's sued them for libel, Morris and Steel refused to apologise for the leaflet, even though they had not written it and only Steel was accused of having (once) distributed it. McDonald's said the fact sheet was a tissue of untruths and that it had no option but to go to law to defend itself against lies. The case covered forestry, nutrition, litter, animal welfare, human rights and advertising. With 180 witnesses, 18,000 pages of testimony and 40,000 pages of documents, it has taken a huge toll on all those involved. "We're both completely exhausted," says Dave. "It's dominated our lives for five years. If we lose we face bankruptcy and jail. At the same time we are exhilarated by what we've achieved."

The McLibel case was one of the most spectacularly unbalanced in legal history. McDonald's paid a crack legal team about 7,000 a day to sledgehammer Steel and Morris who had no financial assets, legal skills or Legal Aid. McDonald's had one of London's most experienced libel lawyers, corporate back-up on two continents - all that money could buy. In the past it has used libel laws to bully critics like the BBC, The Guardian, unions and even Prince Philip to back down on their criticisms against the giant.

Steel and Morris defiantly fought on, preparing their case notes on the Tube to court and depending on supporters who raised about 30,000. They have managed to air many consumer issues - from the right to criticise a massive corporation to the effects on children of its all-pervasive, 1,800-million-ayear advertising As Steel says, "Campaigners are providing a public service by taking on the companies for consumers and exposing them for what they really are. It is not just McDonald's on trial but the food industry and all multinationals."

Regardless of the judge's verdict Morris and Steel feel vindicated by the trial. "The trial is already a victory for the campaign," says Morris. "McDonald's wanted to silence its critics but finally its legal tactics have backfired on them." Morris says that consumers are now more willing to take on companies, pointing to the fact that Shell, Nestle, British Aerospace, RTZ, Lloyds and Midland banks, Guinness, Proctor and Gamble and others are now the targets of social activists.

Win or lose, the McLibel two say they will continue to campaign. As Steel says, "I want to work on more local community issues - decent homes for all, traffic problems and anti-fascist work. Working for a better society is part of everyday life, it's not something separate.

McLibel has embarrassed McDonald's terribly. Instead of a few leaflets being handed out criticising its practices, Steel and Morris have attracted thousands of new supporters to their cause. A massive Internet site has been accessed by millions. The company is unable to respond. It's McHell.

  • John Vidal is environment editor of The Guardian. He has written McLibel - Burger Culture on Trial, which will be published in April by Pan Macmillan at 15.99. The Internet site McSpotlight now contains all 19,000 indexed pages of trial transcripts. It can be reached on http://www.mcspotlight.org/

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