The Telegraph (UK); 20th June 1997

Little relish in McLibel victory

By Sandra Barwick

McDONALD'S was awarded 60,000 libel damages yesterday against two penniless campaigners who defended themselves in the longest trial in English legal history.

But the judge also ruled that the fast-food chain exploits children in its advertising, is cruel to animals and that its restaurants pay low wages to British workers.

Mr Justice Bell, ruling in the High Court on McDonald's action against the activists who distributed pamphlets criticising the company, found that the campaigners had not proved the majority of their claims.

He found that David Morris, 43, a former postman, and Helen Steel, 31, a bar worker, had not established that McDonald's caused starvation in the Third World, destroyed rain forests, lied about recycling, poisoned customers or had bad conditions for workers.

But the two campaigners with London Greenpeace, which has no connection with Greenpeace International, had proved, after 313 days in court, that McDonald's were "culpably responsible" for cruelty to animals in their rearing and their slaughter, especially to chickens and some sows.

Mr Justice Bell found the allegations in the leaflet about mistreatment of animals, headed McTorture, "true in substance and in fact".

He also ruled that claims in the leaflet that McDonald's "exploit children by using them, as more susceptible subjects of advertising, to pressurise their parents into going into McDonald's is justified. It is true".

McDonald's have spent an estimated 10 million on the action to clear their name in a case dubbed "McLibel".

Mr Morris and Miss Steel said the case was a victory for them. "Because we were denied a jury, the public is the jury in this case," Mr Morris said.

They are to argue in the European Court of Human Rights that they were denied a fair trial.

McNuggets
  • THE McLibel case is the longest ever to have run in an English court. Beginning on June 28, 1994, and ending on Dec 13, 1996, it took up 313 days of court time, and the legal battle is estimated to have cost McDonald's 10 million including 28 separate pre-trial hearings.

  • The case comprised eight separate major issues and about 130 witnesses gave evidence. There were 40,000 pages of documents and 20,000 pages of transcript.

  • Defendants raised 40,000 from supporters to cover costs of photocopying, faxes, and contacting potential witnesses and paying fares. Some lawyers gave their advice and help free.

  • The original leaflet probably had a few hundred readers but the entire transcript of the case was put on a Web site, McSpotlight, which campaigners say has been accessed 13 million times. A shorter version of the leaflet is available on the Internet in 17 languages.

  • The McLibel campaign claimed that more than two million leaflets based on disclosures in the court case have been distributed since the case began.

  • Besides legal costs, McDonald's spent heavily on private investigators. It had at least seven agents in the London Greenpeace group - at one time there were as many undercover detectives at group meetings as there were genuine activists.

  • McDonald's employs 40,000 people in its 760 British outlets which are visited by 10 million customers each week, contributing to its 45 million profit last year. The firm is expanding globally at the rate of nine stores a day and since the libel trial began has added 2,500 more to its chain to bring the total to 21,000 outlets in 101 countries.

  • Every week customers in Britain eat their way through 800 tons of chips, 6,500,000 buns and 100,000 gallons of milk.

  • Six thousand British companies are involved in supplying McDonald's with food products and packaging. The company's vehicles travel 112,000 miles a week, making 2,100 deliveries. An average store generates 140lb of waste packaging a day, not including the cardboard and paper which surrounds the takeaway meals.

  • Ruling could damage company's image

    THE judge in the McLibel case ruled that McDonald's was culpably responsible for cruel practices in the rearing and slaughter of some animals used to produce their food.

    The ruling could have damaging implications for the company's attraction to young children, at whom much advertising is aimed.

    Mr Justice Bell, ruling in the High Court on the company's action for libel against David Morris and Helen Steel, two environmental activists, also found that the defendants had proved some of their allegations against McDonald's on advertising, diet and pay. But he found that they had not proved many of their major charges.

    Cruelty to animals:

    The judge said hens which produce eggs for McDonald's "spend their whole lives in battery cages without access to open air or sunlight and without freedom of movement". He did not find the lack of open air or sunshine cruel "but the severe restriction of movement is cruel". A large number of chickens "are still fully conscious when they have their throats cut" and some were roughly handled when taken for slaughter and suffered pre-stun electric shocks while alive.

    Advertising:

    Mr Justice Bell found that Steel and Morris were wrong to claim that the company used gimmicks to cover up the true quality of their food. But their charge that McDonald's exploits children in their advertising was true.

    Starvation in the Third World:

    The judge said claims that McDonald's caused starvation in the Third World through buying vast tracts of land in poor countries and evicting small farmers, and forcing Third World countries to export food such as beef and staple crops for cattle feed "are not, and never had been, true".

    Destruction of rain forests:

    The leaflet claimed that McDonald's used poisons to destroy vast areas of Central American rain forest to create grazing for cattle which ended up as burgers. It also alleged that the company's packaging took 800 square miles of forest a year. All these claims "are not, and never had been, true".

    Recycled paper and litter:

    The leaflet alleged that McDonald's claimed to use recyled paper but used only "a tiny per cent" and that tons of McDonald's paper ended up as litter.

    The judge ruled that in the late 1980s McDonald's in America and Britain used "a small but neverthless significant proportion of recycled fibre". The allegation was not true. He said that McDonald's was not to blame for litter but "the inconsiderate customer". Return to top

    Diet, heart disease and cancer:

    The leaflet claimed that McDonald's food was unhealthy and the company deceived customers by claiming that it was nutritious.

    The judge found that MacDonald's food was high in fat, including saturated fat, salt and animal products. In the past it had been low in fibre.

    Such a diet sustained over very many years "probably does lead to a very real risk of heart disease". That would apply to a small proportion who ate McDonald's food several times a week, "if they continue to do so throughout their lives" encouraged by McDonald's advertising.

    It had not been proved that such a diet led to a very real risk of cancer of the breast or bowel, though it might increase the risk. There was no risk from an occasional meal at McDonald's, as the leaflet implied. The judge said: "It has not been shown that McDonald's food is low in vitamins or minerals. It follows that McDonald's food is not very unhealthy as stated in the leaflet."

    He did find that various McDonald's advertisments and publications had "pretended a nutritional benefit" in food which it did not have.

    Food poisoning:

    The leaflet had claimed that McDonald's exposed their customers to a serious risk of food poisoning. The judge found that that was not true.

    Employment:

    Leaflet allegations that McDonald's restaurants paid only low wages to its staff were true, the judge found. They did, "helping to depress wages for workers in the catering trade in Britain". But McDonald's did not exploit the disadvantaged.

    Renewed calls for libel reform

    THE case has been greeted as an example of the need for reform of the libel law. Adam Newey, news editor of Index on Censorship, said: "Libel protects the powerful, not the weak - inevitably it has a stifling effect on public debate."

    The huge costs in an action for defamation mount from the moment a writ is issued. For defendants it can be even tougher. Home and savings are at risk, and legal aid is not available.

    Helen Steel and Dave Morris unusually did not have highly-paid jobs or houses to lose. They were willing to spend more than two years working full time on the case.

    But they had to cope with a difficult and intricate area of law. Mr Justice Rodger Bell said during the McDonald's case that libel was difficult for the litigant in person. "In ordinary negligence claims if you don't know what the law is you can say what you think is sensible and there is a 90 per cent chance of being right," he said. "I'm not sure the percentages aren't the reverse of that in the law of defamation."

    Mr Morris and Miss Steel were refused a jury, on the grounds that the issues were too complex, though as litigants in person they were expected to grasp them themselves.

    Geoffrey Bindman of Bindman and Partners, and visiting professor at University College London, said the law originated after the French Revolution, when it was used to suppress the propagation of democratic ideas. "Libel law is often used to suppress publication of information which the public ought to know," he said.

    He would like to see a new code with a bias to freedom of expression and of information with safeguards for privacy and reputation. In America, the First Amendment to the constitution guarantees freedom of speech. If allegations about a public company deal with issues of public concern, it is hard to get damages.

    The company must prove allegations to be false, whereas in Britain the defendant has to prove they are true. Mr Bindman believes that it would be wrong to duplicate American law exactly. But Robert Maxwell, for example, would not have been able to use the libel law as a weapon if similar provision had existed here.

    Recent reforms have made libel cases quicker, but the basic principles are unchanged. The Labour Government promised in its election manifesto to bring in a Freedom of Information Bill, incorporating provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights.

    Two vegans who took on the burger giant

    By Sandra Barwick

    HELEN Steel and Dave Morris look set to join Swampy, Animal and Muppet Dave in the annals of fame as environmental activists.

    Instead of spending days cramped in mud tunnels, they have spent two years immured in the High Court with Mr Justice Rodger Bell and Richard Rampton, QC, for McDonald's.

    Many see them as eco-warriors with box files, but, whatever the view of their politics, in their battle with McDonald's they have proved themselves effective adversaries, at some personal cost, against a powerful corporation.

    In their spare time Miss Steel, 31, has been working behind a bar and Mr Morris, 43, a single father, has been looking after his eight-year-old son, Charlie.

    The pressures of conducting a court case without any help at home have been considerable. In Mr Morris's phrase: "Rampton and the judge won't have been doing any vaccuuming."

    As a result, they did not have time to read some of the documents they received or to find some witnesses. Mr Morris, in particular, feels frustrated that they had not done even more. "It nags you all the time."

    Miss Steel, whose mother was a shop worker and father a teacher and union branch secretary, said: "I've always believed you should stand up to bullies. When I was quite young, probably about eight, in Preston, there was a boy who would bully the other kids in the street. One day Mum said go and hit him back. And basically after that, he backed off. I learnt that lesson. I've always felt people, animals and the environment shouldn't be exploited."

    Mr Morris merely says he was brought up to question things by his parents. His mother was a primary school teacher and his father a door-to-door salesman.

    "My parents were very humanitarian and supporters of the Labour Party, socialist, and they encouraged me to think for myself. I've just wanted to change the world since I was 17. I want a society based on sharing and freedom, not on greed and power."

    Many teenagers would echo their sentiments but most grow up and effectively join the world they used to criticise. Miss Steel and Mr Morris did not. Their youthful idealism continued doggedly into adulthood.

    Both are vegans. Both are anarchists. McDonald's, the largest international meat selling company, represents everything they despise. Mr Morris was an active trade unionist when he worked for six years in the Post Office in Islington, becoming secretary of his branch.

    The two met in a community action group based in Haringey, north London, but really got to know each other during the miners' strike. Despite their long comradeship, they have never been emotionally involved but are now probably the most famous uninvolved couple since Torvill and Dean.

    Together and singly, they have fought under all the famous banners of the past couple of decades. Morris campaigned against nuclear energy. Anti-traffic - they have campaigned against a local road scheme, Stop the City demo in the City of London, anti-poll tax and pro Wapping print unions. Both regularly attended demonstrations outside the News International newspaper plant at Wapping in 1986. After that, she began to get involved in London Greenpeace, a small group not associated with Greenpeace International.

    Both decided when writs were issued for libel against them in 1990 that they would not apologise and retract. Miss Steel said: "We thought, why should we apologise? We haven't anything to apologise for. McDonald's should be apologising. How dare they ask us to apologise?"

    They were aided by the fact that they had few, if any, material goods to lose. Between them, they have an income of around 7,000 a year. Mr Morris receives single parent's allowance of around 70 a week. Miss Steel works part time.

    McDonald's had no hope of ever recovering costs, let alone damages, from them. Both were prepared to give up the chance of finding a job for the next two years to fight the case.

    There were moments of mirth during the case. For example, in 1995 after they had asked McDonald's to hand over 1994 documents on the bacterial content of their hamburgers, the court was told the documents had been held for safekeeping by Group 4 security but had inadvertently been destroyed by them in error.

    On the whole, they have found the past years tough. Miss Steel was getting home from the case on Fridays at 5.30pm, starting in the bar at 9.30pm and working till four in the morning. As a result, she was shattered most of the time. "It's been incredibly stressful."

    She hated the fact that McDonald's occupied her thoughts all the time, even invading her dreams. Several times she wept in court from stress and exhaustion.

    Mr Morris worried about his son. Once during the case, the boy broke his leg and needed 24-hour care. Both got three days off after McDonald's offered to pay for a childminder.

    "Everyone in the court room was being paid hand over foot to be there, except us. All the way through, you're dependent on the goodwill of others - my neighbours and friends for child care," said Mr Morris.

    McDonald's instructed a QC, a junior and a firm of solicitors to look after their interests. Mr Morris believes his relationship with his son has suffered because of the time he has spent on the case.

    But they experienced "overwhelming public support - messages, donations, offers to help - distributing leaflets, people coming up to us on the Tube and shaking our hands," said Mr Morris. "It was all that that enabled us to carry on," said Miss Steel. "We wouldn't have had the strength otherwise."

    Within the courtroom, they adhered to certain rules of their own. Not once did either call Mr Justice Bell "My Lord". She said: "We tried to talk to him like a normal person." Mr Morris once referred to Mr Rampton, more used to a respectful "M'learned friend" from colleagues, as "Richard".

    "He'll be calling me Dickie next," objected the QC.

    Once interest in the judgment has died down, Mr Morris wants to spend more time with Charlie "to teach him to question things". But he and Miss Steel intend to carry on campaigning.


    Back to Media Page

    Press Index