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06/07/00 . Emma Brockes . The Guardian . UK
Life after McLibel
With no money and no legal training, they took on McDonald's in an epic £10m trial. Now they have tackled the Met - and won. Two remarkably tenacious campaigners tell Emma Brockes what's next
Dave Morris would be celebrating this week, were it not for his suspicion that all celebrations are premature as long as western, capitalist governments remain untoppled. Morris and his colleague Helen Steel make up the McLibel Two, the pair of unemployed ecologists from East London who wound up McDonald's so much that it spent £10m on the longest trial in English history trying to squash them. A year after an appeal court reduced the damages the pair owe, they have been awarded £10,000 from the Metropolitan police. And so they can look grimly to the next challenge.
The success of the McLibel Two owes much to their mind-boggling appetite for detail. To observers of the case, it appeared as if Steel and Morris simply bored their opposition into the ground. They plugged away for three whole years: 314 days in the high court; 20,000 pages of transcript; a 750-page judgment; crushing enemy counsel with the terrifying possibility that they had all the time in the world and might just take it.
The payout from the Met came about because the pair doggedly followed up information that came to light during the trial. On day 249, it emerged that officers had disclosed details of their home addresses to a private investigator working for McDonald's. After the trial was over, without surfacing for air, the two brought a case against the police force, which has been settled out of court. As well as giving them £10,000, the Met has promised to remind officers about the dangers of disclosing information to third parties.
"The main purpose of the case was not financial," says Morris. "It was to expose the links between the police and big corporations and to make sure that the practice doesn't continue."
Morris, 46 and unemployed, is particularly well suited to the drip-drip-drip approach to successful legal defence. He is a naturally slow speaker, revising his comments with postscripts and qualifications, leaving long, agonised "therefores" hanging in the breeze as if speaking for dictation or addressing a pedantic local planning committee. "I wouldn't say that we are jubilant about the payout. We are . . . pleased . . . to have . . . succeeded. But obviously it's just a small part in the never-ending struggle against the corporations and . . . therefore . . . we are continuing to pursue other issues." With a little fine-tuning, his manner could be used as a powerful court room sedative.
The McLibel case, brought against London Greenpeace by McDonald's over allegations that it destroyed the environment and poisoned its customers, made Steel and Morris into unlikely heroes. The pair met in the 1980s and shared a house and allotment together, before working side by side on the anti-poll tax campaign. They refer to themselves as anarchists, in a matter of fact, unhysterical sort of way. Steel, 34, is softly spoken and inclined to hesitate over her words, as though riffling through an immense vocabulary for exactly the right term. Getting it right is important to her.
The McLibel Two lost their case, but were widely viewed to have won the publicity war. McDonald's came out of the eight-year affair looking shabby and defensive, with the judge upholding allegations that it was cruel to animals and paid low wages. The worst that could be said about Steel and Morris was that they were a bit dull.
"The whole McDonald's thing was a detour for me," says Morris. "My main concern has always been the community. But it was an opportunity not to be missed. They spent £10m on a global platform for the case against them. It was an overwhelming victory."
The "victory" left both Morris and Steel exhausted. In the aftermath of the appeal, Steel broke away to New Zealand, where she stayed for a couple of months with her sister. When she returned, she worked in a bar for a while and has since completed a course in self-building and electrical engineering. Together with some friends, she has formed a housing co-operative and they plan to convert a disused property into housing units, exercising their ecological principles.
"After all that time in court, it was good to get out and do something practical," she says. "A lot of the legal stuff was so arcane - day-long arguments over whether three pounds an hour constituted poor pay. It seemed very separate to real life."
The friendship between Morris and Steel has survived the pressures of the trial, when they were so absorbed by paperwork that each was the only person in the world who could fully understand the other. They remain in close contact, but while Morris is still cooped up in his box room in Tottenham, north London, poring over files as he prepares to go before the European court of human rights with a spin-off from the McLibel case, Steel has wound down her involvement with it. "It took over our lives for several years, not something we would have chosen to dedicate the time to," she says. "I still see Dave regularly, but things have inevitably scaled down."As regularly as twice a week? "Oh no, no, not that often."
Morris, meanwhile, took time off after the trial to spend with his 11-year-old son. He is a single parent and everything revolves around that. "As with all single parents, it's a juggling act," he says. "My routine is dominated by his needs." He used to work in a bar at weekends, but now dedicates most of the time, outside of pursuing sequels to the McLibel trial, running his local residents group. It is this that defines his core beliefs: that communities should look after each other without the intervention of big government. "We are both anarchists," he says, dispassionately. "We want to see a society without governments and corporations, where people control their own lives. There is a war between those who have power and those who have to fight for their interests."
The question of taking a break from the dusty files is not one he will
countenance. "I don't want to spent the rest of my life on McDonald's, because
obviously there is a lot more to work on. There are the bread and butter
issues of housing, poverty and empowering the people. Just as the
authorities work night and day to defend their interests, so will we."