McDonald's libel action against two North London environmentalists is, according to Auberon Waugh, the 'best free entertainment in London'.
With the benefit of hindsight McDonald's might have thought twice before serving writs in 1990 on Helen Steel and Dave Morris for allegedly libelling the corporation. At the end of last year the trial secured itself an infamous place in legal history as the longest civil case of any kind. When McDonald's top legal brief eyed up the unlikely competition he thought he would be on to the next job in three weeks time. Today is day 208. It is far from over. The offending leaflet, What's Wrong Jig With McDonald's? was published by London Greenpeace and accused the fast-food chain of alleged environmental destruction, cruelty to animals, exploitation of staff and of selling food which caused heart disease and cancer. To win the case the two defendants have to prove the truth of these allegations. They have no legal aid, they represent themselves in court and there is no jury.
What is amazing is that the case ever came to court. Dave is a single parent and an unemployed postman. Helen works part-time in a bar. They are among a growing number of people who are forced to represent themselves or abandon actions as they find themselves ineligible for legal aid and cannot afford the expense of lawyers. Initially the two defendants turned to Civil Liberation Group Liberty for help with applications to the Court Of Appeal. Now they do everything themselves. only approaching sympathetic lawyers for help with the complexities of libel law. For financial support the two environmentalists have relied on well-wishers and. so far, have spent £20,000. The defendants have a combined income of £7,000 whereas the prosecution has all the legal might that a $26 billion a
"They were stunned at the strength of our case.|
In fact, the barrister they had then was chewing
the pink string around his bound documents."
year multi-national can buy. From the onset the defendants have had to battle against incredible odds. The pressures of fighting day to day an action of this length and complexity are immense. According to Helen. "We're the barrister in court. we're the solicitor, we're the secretary, we're the person in charge of the filing and it is just really exhausting."'
As well as coping with the administrative nightmares, the defendants have had to contend with the tactical advantages experienced lawyers can use. "We got writs in September 1990. At the beginning of 1993 everything suddenly started speeding up. We still weren't sure of the procedures."
Nevertheless the defendants, with neither connections nor resources, rose to the challenge of organising witness statements to support their defence. "In three weeks we managed to get 50 or 60 witness statements. Dave got most of them and it was mostly a matter of just ringing up people and saying 'can you just put down your experience about what it was like to work for McDonald's?' In normal cases experts get a fee to prepare their reports and when they're giving evidence. We had to ask people to do it for nothing and that shows the strength of feeling."
Dave remembers the reaction of McDonald's legal team when confronted on the final day with 65 witness statements; "They were stunned at the strength of our case. In fact, the barrister they had then was chewing the pink string around his bound documents. We only served the documents the night before which was the absolute deadline and the hearing was the next day. He had been up all night reading them and he was a complete nervous wreck because up to then he had always taken the line we would never get a defence together."
One witness Helen rang up was Stephen Gardener, the former Attorney General of Texas, USA "He was completely shocked by the whole case. He, along with the Attorney General of New York and California, had sent writs to McDonald's about advertising which presented their food as nutritious. They considered it deceptive and an attempt to pull the wool over people's eyes. He was shocked that they were able to sue us for making more or less the same criticism."
In America legal action was threatened against McDonald's and the ads were stopped immediately.
Dave feels that the English legal system, is the root of the problem. "In this country, you're guilty until you prove your innocence. But in the States the burden of proof is on the prosecution so they have to prove the libel is not true. On top of that of course there is public assistance for defendants and here there is no libel legal aid. The odds are completely stacked against the defendants. It seems to us, the whole point of libel laws is to suppress criticism of the rich and powerful."
"The tables have turned
Despite this imbalance it is evident that even if the multinational wins the legal battle the more important PR war will be lost. Far from shutting up campaigners the trial has provided critics with a platform. Helen says "The tables have turned and it's them and the company's business practices that are on trial and that's what people are interested in".
The six-year battle has been the subject of international media interest It has been front page news in the Wall Street Journal ('...makes the OJ Simpson murder trial look like a quick takeout.') and an Australian documentary about the case has been syndicated to up to 60 countries. Over the last year demonstrations have been held outside McDonald's across the world from Paris and Auckland to Trondheim and Bolton. This week the campaign goes global with the launch of an internet site, McSpotlight. This is intended to be an online interactive library of information about the corporation, including updates on the McLibel case. The project is the work of the information network supported by volunteers based in 14 countries. It will allow the kind of information that landed the two in court to be easily and freely disseminated across the globe.
Dave and Helen are exhausted but triumphant. The verdict is due in July. Should they lose, they intend to go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights claiming the lack of legal aid and the absence of a jury has denied them a fair trial, If they win it will be a major victory for the freedom of speech. "McDonald's have already lost and so the campaign has already won," says Helen, "McDonald's whole purpose of bringing this case was to silence their critics. Since the writ was first served on us in 1990 over a million and a half What's wrong with McDonald's? leaflets have been handed out in this country alone."