Debating Room - McFun - For Sale - Search - What's New? - Mailing List
27/08/04 . by Alison Roberts . Evening Standard . London,UK
We're simply lovin' it...
The bookshelves in Dave Morris's modest north London terrace strain under the weight of grey plastic ring-binders. There are many thousands of documents here, all relating to the longest trial in English legal history - and for the past few weeks, Morris has been attempting the Herculean task of summarising them all in just 10 A4 pages.
It's been seven years since the original McLibel trial (dubbed "the best free entertainment in London" by Auberon Waugh) was brought to a close by Mr Justice Bell in a packed courtroom, after 313 record-breaking days of controversial testimony and argument.
But now Morris and his co-defendant, Helen Steel, accused of libelling the burger chain in a samizdat leaflet distributed outside McDonald's restaurants in 1990, are taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on 7 September.
"We're going to be staying at a nice hotel, apparently," says Morris, who rarely stays in hotels anywhere. "We're submitting five or six ring-binders of documentation, but we've also got to condense the case into 10 pages." He looks down at the mass of paper on the floor. "And that's almost impossible."
Alas, Euro-McLibel is somewhat esoteric compared to the original warts 'n' all trial, in which Morris and Steel successfully proved that the world's most famous multinational corporation exploited children with its advertising, falsely advertised its food as nutritious and was "culpably responsible" for cruelty to animals - yet still lost the case overall and were ordered to pay £60,000 in damages.
This time Morris and Steel will argue that the original hearing contravened the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights. Essentially the McLibel Two want English law to be changed so that multinational corporations are not allowed to sue for libel (just as governmental bodies are not allowed to). The court will also be asked to consider whether the trial was fair given the comical discrepancy between the two sides' resources.
In one corner stood Morris and Steel, a former postman and gardener, who defended themselves, had a combined annual income at the time of £7,500 and raised a war chest of just £35,000, including a £1,000 donation from the late Linda McCartney.
The two vegans - Morris, the son of a Labour-supporting north London door-to-door salesman, and Steel, the daughter of a Lancashire teacher and branch union secretary - had met in a Haringey community action group. Their friendship was cemented when they hitchhiked to Yorkshire to support the miners' strike in 1983 and together they campaigned against everything from road schemes to the poll tax, before upsetting McDonald's.
Occasionally mistaken for a couple, they were actually just friends, neither of whom had any higher education. What they did have was the fierce determination of the British underdog. Morris said his parents had always "encouraged me to think for myself - I've wanted to change the world since I was 17".
Steel seems to have inherited her fighting spirit from her mother, who once told her to go outside and punch the local bully when she was just eight years old. "So I did - well, she says I did, and he didn't bother me again," she explains.
But on paper, they seemed to have little chance against the might of a global corporation. In contrast to their paltry financial resources, McDonald's spent an estimated £10 million on a small army of legal representatives and costs.
And yet at the end of the original trial in June 1997, both sides claimed victory. Some of the points in the anti - McDonald's leaflet had been proved, others hadn't. Steel and Morris refused to pay the £60,000 and, two days after the verdict, were back outside the golden arches distributing the leaflet again.
But for McDonald's, the lengthy and detailed trial was an undoubted PR disaster. At one point, when asked about the nutritional content of Coca-Cola, McDonald's senior vice president of marketing, David Green, said it provided "water, and I think that is part of a balanced diet". It even emerged that McDonald's infiltrated spies into the north London Greenpeace group which printed up the leaflet (a radical environmental group not tied to Greenpeace International), and that one of the spies tried to find out Morris's address by offering to send baby clothes for his young son.
Since then, prompted by books such as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and an increasing awareness of the dangers of obesity, our attitude towards US-bred fast-food culture has undergone a radical shift. In 2002 McDonald's announced its first quarterly loss in 47 years, and began to change its menus in response.
A bubble has burst," claims Morris. "Most people no longer think of McDonald's in the way it portrays itself, as this kind of benevolent organisation that makes children happy. Instead they think of it more realistically - as a kind of mediocre company that sells mediocre products. Even people who eat there have ambivalent attitudes towards it." If McLibel began the backlash, it is documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, already compared to Fahrenheit 9/11's Michael Moore, who is twisting the knife. Next month's release of Super Size Me, in which Spurlock spends four weeks eating nothing but McDonald's, with near-catastrophic consequences for his cholesterol levels and liver, merely confirms what Morris and Steel maintained from the start: that a diet based on burgers, fries and fat-laden milkshakes is very bad for your health.
It goes without saying that Steel and Morris, now 38 and 50 respectively, are seen as heroes within the anti-globalisation and vegetarian movements. Yet the case also struck a chord with a broader and less militant audience, who simply admired their refusal to back down in the face of overwhelming corporate power. It was a David-and-Goliath battle, and of course the silent majority sided with David.
The pair don't much like this cult status, however. "I think it disempowers people because they think, oh you have to be some sort of superhero to take these multinationals on - whereas, in reality, we're very ordinary people and anyone can do it," says Steel a little disingenuously. By definition, the McLibel Two are not ordinary: they describe themselves as "anarchists" for a start (in the sense that anarchism means people power, a society without controlling governments or private corporations). For Morris, McDonald's has been a bÍte noire for almost 30 years. "I remember going into the second branch they ever opened in this country," he says. "It was in Holloway, in 1975, and I had to deliver their post every day. I thought there was something pretty sinister about it, this new cafť with the workers in colourful uniforms and little name tags, smiling all the time." Morris was branch secretary of the postal workers' union, and one day asked a burger-flipper at McDonald's if the restaurant was unionised. "I remember he gave me this bizarre look, like, 'What are you talking about? This is McDonald's!'"
A single dad to 15-year-old Charlie, Morris nowadays spends most of his time doing unpaid community work. He is acutely aware of the ways in which advertising turns children into raging consumers and of the "pester power" factor upon which fast-food outlets often rely. I wonder whether Charlie has ever eaten at a McDonald's. "I think he's had fries a couple of times with friends," says Dave warily. "But I haven't," declares Steel, who nowadays works as a qualified electrician. "I've used their loos once or twice and that's it."
McLibel dominated their lives for at least three years. Without legal aid they had to learn complex areas of libel law, seek witnesses and work out technical strategies almost entirely by themselves.
"Of course our personal lives suffered," says Steel.
"There were points when I did feel like, 'Oh I can't carry on. This is driving me mad, I've really had enough and I want my life back.' The fact that there were two of us helped. One of us was able to carry the load while the other drew breath."
Were they ever frightened by what they had got themselves into, this extraordinary legal fight with a global corporation more powerful than many national governments?
"When we first got the writs, we took legal advice," says Steel, "and the advice was basically, 'It's really hard to defend a libel case at the best of times, but if you haven't got any resources, against such wealthy opposition, well, forget it'.
"And, of course, we stood the risk of being ordered to pay X amount of costs and damages, and having an injunction against us, and the threat of going to jail. That was very intimidating and daunting." She pauses briefly and looks me right in the eye.
"But, for me, it would have been much worse if I'd apologised for something that I didn't believe deserved an apology. Living with that feeling would have been worse."
A film about the trial by documentary maker Franny Armstrong, titled McLibel: Two Worlds Collide, has yet to be shown on British TV despite strong initial interest from both the BBC and Channel 4. Broadcasters are worried that the film is libellous and do not want a legal head-to-head with the US giant.
Yet if Steel and Morris win their case in Europe next month it's unlikely that McLibel could ever happen again. And if they don't, well, that's the end of McLibel anyway.
"You can't go to a higher court, so that really would be the end of legal proceedings," says Steel, relief in her voice. "But, obviously, it's not the end of the campaign, not the end of people challenging multinationals and the effect they have on society."
Dave nods vigorously. "No, no. That's a struggle that will go on for a very long time."
McLibel: Two Worlds Collide and Super Size Me at Curzon Soho, 5 September, from noon.