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23/03/03 . n/a . The Observer . United Kingdom
What happened next?
Names: Helen Steel and Dave Morris Date: September 1990 Place: London Facts: Helen Steel, 37, and Dave Morris, 49, became known as the 'McLibel Two' when they were accused by McDonald's of libelling the company in a campaigning leaflet they had distributed. Despite having no legal background, they chose to defend themselves in what became the longest civil trial in British history. The judge ruled the leaflet libellous, but upheld some of their claims, in a move seen as a major blow to McDonald's. Both have returned to community activism. For more information, go to www.mcspotlight.org
Helen Steel: I'd just arrived outside a friend's house when a man stepped in front of me, said 'Helen', and then dropped an envelope at my feet. It was a writ from McDonald's claiming damages for alleged libel. The letter said if we didn't apologise and pay their costs they would proceed with a court case. I felt really angry, both that they had followed me around and that they could attempt to intimidate people in this way. I felt we had no option but to fight the case ourselves.
McDonald's predicted the trial would last three to four weeks; they must have expected to be able to walk all over us, knowing that we were unrepresented and had no experience of the libel courts. In fact, it lasted 313 days, becoming the longest trial in English legal history. Representing ourselves was exhausting and stressful, but support from people writing in kept our spirits up, as did news of protests around the world.
The verdict was devastating for McDonald's. The judge ruled that they exploit children with their advertising strategy; deceptively promote their food as nutritious; pay low wages and are responsible for cruelty to animals. I think McDonald's bitterly regret taking us on. They spent an estimated £10m on the case only for all their dirty linen to be aired in public. Because the judge ruled against us on some points, however, we were ordered to pay damages to McDonald's. We appealed and the damages were reduced from £60,000 to £40,000. We've never paid them a penny though!
It felt great when the case ended. At last I had the time to do things I enjoy, going for long walks in the countryside, growing food on my allotment, meeting up with friends. I've also helped to set up a housing co-op and trained to become an electrician.
Although it's over 12 years since the writs were served on us, Dave and I are still working on McLibel. We've lodged a case with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing the UK libel system breaches the right to freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial. We're also both involved with a local group - Haringey Solidarity Group, working on a variety of local issues and campaigns.
Recently we've been down to support the firefighters in Tottenham. I can still feel overwhelmed by the huge power that corporations hold, but the recent growth of opposition to capitalism and war is very inspiring. All over the world people are recognising that if we want to protect our communities from profiteering and destruction, then it's up to ordinary people to get together. It's important to look for the positives in life.
Dave Morris: In the 70s, as a postal worker and union activist, I had a foretaste of battles to come when I first delivered mail to a local McDonald's and was told by staff about their poor working conditions. In 1990, faced with their attempt to silence public criticism, Helen and I knew we had to fight back, come what may. We got two hours of free advice, but no further Legal Aid was available. An active support campaign ensured protests surrounding the case grew; thousands of activists signed a 'pledge of defiance' to continue to leaflet and the new Mcspotlight website got a million hits in its first month. As a lone parent with a young boy, Charlie, I wouldn't even have been able to fight the case without the continuous help of friends and neighbours.
I was outraged when we were denied a jury trial, but knew what really counted was the court of public opinion. It was hard and relentless work, but a real buzz. As we emerged into the sunshine after the verdict, I was really chuffed that there were crowds of cheering people.
I believe the campaign contributed to the rise of the modern anti-capitalist and anarchist movements which show there's a global alternative to the current system. My only regret is that the case distracted me for nearly 10 years from the activities I value most in my local area. I was really glad to get back on to my old stomping ground.
I helped start a parents' group at Charlie's school, then put most of my efforts into a local residents' association, working to build up community spirit, improve the local environment and local facilities, and generally empower people to feel that they are the ones that count, that they should have control over their lives. Every person and community in the world deserves nothing less.
As two ordinary people who made the most of an extraordinary situation, we wanted to show that everyone can speak out and stand up for what's right, whatever the odds, especially if they're organised and determined. If the campaign's efforts have inspired anyone to challenge the powers-that-be, then it will have been worth it all. Together people can create a world based not on money or power, but on sharing and co-operation; where communities control all the decision-making and resources; and workers control their workplaces and smile only when they feel like it.