Victory for McDonald's
BY GUY WALTERS
AS MR JUSTICE BELL gave his ruling on the McLibel case yesterday, activists began to deliver their verdict on the Internet. The World Wide Web is a haven for those who want to see the golden arches torn down, and the hearing produced much criticism of McDonald's on screen.
Some of the Web sites are risqué and amateurish. The most organised is McSpotlight, produced in north London by the McInformation Network. It has run the full text of the court proceedings and has a "debating room", where critics discuss all matters relating to McDonald's.
Typical of the e-mails sent yesterday was one from a Mark Williams: "The poor little average citizen," he wrote, "can eat at McDonald's but not have a valid opinion about whether it is a good idea." Other messages offered support to the defendants and many complained about the length of the trial. Last year Dave Morris contributed, with a message that ended: "Together, people are more powerful than chequebooks and lawbooks."
The McInformation Network estimated that the site had been accessed at least 12 million times. It claims that McDonald's accessed the site 1,700 times in the first week after its launch. The group believes that only the threat of more negative publicity has stopped McDonald's from attempting to close the site down. Tim Hardy, a media lawyer with Cameron McKenna, said: "McDonald's could consider suing the Internet service providers but the legal hurdles are immense. It would be a new area of law and take a lot of expensive litigation."
Yesterday members of the McInformation Network were busy entering the text of Mr Justice Bell's summarised verdict. "We are also going to enter the full 800-page verdict," Devin Howse, a member, said. "We hope to have a statement from Dave Morris and Helen Steel."
McDonald's own Website made no reference to the trial yesterday. Instead, it offered a special deal on a breakfast sandwich.
McLibel decision fails to silence the small fries
REPORTS BY FRANCES GIBB LEGAL CORRESPONDENTTHE environmental activists who fought the McDonald's libel action staged an immediate act of defiance after claiming yesterday's ruling as a victory. Helen Steel and Dave Morris gave leaflets summarising their allegations against McDonald's to crowds outside the law courts, shouting: "Judge for yourselves, read the leaflets. We will not be silenced."
The six-page leaflet that prompted the case, called What's Wrong with McDonald's?, was part of a campaign run by London Greenpeace, which has no connection with Greenpeace International.
McDonald's hoped that a ruling in its favour from the High Court in London would serve as a deterrent to the worldwide protest campaign and as a vindication of its procedures and practices.
Yesterday Paul Preston, chairman and chief executive of McDonald's Restaurants (UK) Ltd, said: "This judgment represents a thorough audit of our business. Based on the overwhelming evidence given in support of our case, we believe that our employees and customers will be reassured by the judgment."
At a press conference for McDonald's opponents, Michael Mansfield, QC, the leading left-wing lawyer, drew cheers when he said: "This clearly represents a major victory for these two individuals. We owe a debt of gratitude to these two young people who have dared to tread where others have not dared to tread. The issues touch every part of our working lives."
The writs were issued seven years ago. The climax of the legal proceedings lasted just two hours yesterday when Mr Justice Bell read out a 45-page summary of his judgment.
He found it was not true that McDonald's was responsible for destroying rainforests with lethal poisons to provide cattle grazing and timber for packaging, thus helping to wreck the planet.
Nor was there evidence that McDonald's had bought vast tracts of land in Costa Rica, Guatemala or Brazil or that small farmers and tribal peoples had been dispossessed.
Mr Justice Bell said there was some evidence that McDonald's publicity in 1990 was misleading about the recycled content of some of its packaging in Britain, but this did not justify the charge of lying.
On the health aspect of McDonald's food, he said the leaflet said it was high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals. But the risk of heart disease, he said, was only true in relation to customers who ate there several times a week over a period of years. The risk of bowel cancer might be increased to some extent, but there was no evidence in relation to breast cancer.
He said that some of McDonald's promotional claims that the food had a positive nutritional benefit "did not match" the reality of a product that was high in saturated fat and salt. The risk of food poisoning from eating McDonald's products was minimal, he said, and an allegation that customers were exposed to residues of antibiotic drugs, growth-promoting hormones and pesticides was not true.
The judge upheld the activists' claims in three areas. He agreed that McDonald's advertising and marketing "makes considerable use of susceptible young children to bring in custom". But the complaint that McDonald's promoted the consumption of its meals as a fun event while knowing that the contents could poison the children was not justified.
The protesters had also shown that hens, broiler chickens and some pigs were treated cruelly by being given little room to move at least for some part of their lives, while a small proportion of the millions of chickens slaughtered were still fully conscious when their throats were slit.
The judge said there was evidence that McDonald's paid low wages, but it was not true that it was interested only in recruiting cheap labour and that it exploited disadvantaged groups, particularly women and black people: "They treat women and black crew members the same as the rest so far as pay and conditions of employment are concerned. They do not target them as cheap labour. They are genuinely equal opportunity employers."
The judge said McDonald's was entitled to compensation for damage to its trading reputation and goodwill and to vindicate its good name. He said that in awarding damages, the financial means of the defendants were irrelevant and he did not know whether the burger chain would seek to enforce the judgment.