Subject: Interview with Helen Steel and David Morris, Defendants in the McDonalds Libel Lawsuit
Date: Feb 12, 1994
(Interviewer in Italics)
Q. What is the background of events surrounding the service of
writs on you?
A. London Greenpeace launched its campaign against McDonald's in
1985, to try to co-ordinate and strengthen world-wide opposition to
McDonald's and the 6 page factsheet (which is the subject of the
libel action) was produced a year or so later. By 1990 when the
writs were served, the group was less involved with the worldwide
campaign, and it is ironic that we got the writs at that time.
Q. How did McDonald's obtain information about London Greenpeace
A. In 1989/90 they sent spies to the groups' meetings, and
followed people home afterwards. London Greenpeace is an open group,
and anybody can attend meetings and participate, so the spies were
able to abuse the group's trust in order to do their dirty work. We
have received 4 witness statements from McDonald's, made by their
Q. What is McDonald's case against you?
A. Their case is that we distributed or allowed others to
distribute the 6 page factsheet to members of the public. They claim
that virtually all of the factsheet is libellous, and they want
damages and an injunction to stop us from distributing the factsheet
or any other leaflet.
Q. What is your defence?
A. McDonald's have to prove that we distributed the factsheets.
We have to prove that the facts in the factsheet are true
(justification) and that the comments are a fair opinion, based on
the facts (fair comment).
Q. Were any other London Greenpeace campaigners involved?
A. McDonald's served writs on 5 people, we were only allowed 2
hours worth of legal aid and none of us knew anything about libel
proceedings so the whole thing was very confusing. We were advised
that because legal aid is not available to fight libel cases, and the
law is very complex, the odds were stacked against us and the risks
were great. The other 3 felt intimidated and overwhelmed by the
thought of trying to fight it and so apologised. McDonald's tried to
put this over as though London Greenpeace itself had apologised, and
this was printed in a couple of newspapers, one of which later printed
a correction after the group complained.
Q. Why did you decide to fight on?
A. We feel this is a matter of free speech, people should have
the right to put alternative views across and criticise
multinationals, especially those who spend a fortune pushing their
own propaganda. We have nothing to apologise for, it is McDonald's
who should be giving out apologies. They have sued many groups and
individuals in this country in order to censor and intimidate their
critics, and we felt it important that they didn't continue to get
away with this unchallenged.
Q. What happened in the legal proceedings after you served your
A. For the next couple of years there were requests on both sides
for more details of each sides' case (further and better
particulars). McDonald's dragged this stage out asking for more and
more details, hoping that we would be exhausted and lose interest in
fighting on. They then realised that we were not going to give in,
and since the beginning of this year they have deliberately had the
proceedings speeded up in the hope that we wont be able to keep the
pace. They are also deliberately withholding information in their
possession in order to make it harder for us to prepare our case.
Q. What is the position on Discovery?
A. Discovery is the legal obligation of each side to disclose to
the other side all the documents in their possession which are
relevant to the issues in the case. McDonald's have deliberately
withheld relevant documents and instead have substituted a lot of
documents which are not really relevant to the case. We tried at 9
hearings to get proper Discovery but each time the Judge adjourned
our application without making a decision. Finally, in December,
they were ordered to hand over some more documents but only in
limited areas of the case, so effectively they were let off the hook.
A similar situation arose with the Interrogatories (a series of
questions about the issues in the case) which we asked them. They
refused to answer them, and the court refused to order them to
provide answers. We gave full discovery, and were ordered to provide
answers to McDonald's Interrogatories in March last year.
Q. What about the exchange of witness statements?
A. The timetable originally set down by the Judge was that
exchange of witness statements should occur two months after
Discovery. This is the normal procedure because if a document is
disclosed which shows that something pleaded is true, then there is
no need to call a witness about that matter, so time and money are
saved. Discovery also comes first so that witnesses are able to
comment on the documents disclosed, to say whether they agree with the
contents or dispute them.
While we were still trying to get proper discovery from McDonald's,
long past the time when they should have given it, the original
deadline for exchange of witness statements passed and McDonald's then
persuaded the court that despite them not having given proper
discovery, we should have to stick to the deadline set for witness
In July 1993 the Judge ordered that we had to serve all our witness
statements within three weeks. We had to obtain our witness
statements from around the world in those three weeks on the small
amount of money that we have. We did manage to obtain 65 signed
statements, including 30 or so by experts on the various issues, but
there were many more that we just could not get in time.
McDonald's served 40 witness statements mainly from their own
corporate officers and employees, also from four experts. In January
this year, just a month from when the trial is due to start,
McDonald's served a further 47 witness statements. This was yet
another attempt by them to make it impossible for us to prepare the
case in time for trial.
Q. I understand that libel cases are normally heard by a jury,
but that McDonald's applied for a non-jury trial and this request was
granted by the Judge.
A. McDonald's argued that the issues in the case are too
complicated for a jury to understand. We believe that the opposite
is true and that the public have in recent years become more aware of
these issues, which is exactly why McDonald's want to avoid a jury.
They also argued that because we were unwaged they would be paying
for the costs of the trial whoever won, so the trial should be by
Judge alone as this would be cheaper. This argument is outrageous,
they knew we were unwaged when they took out the writs against us but
that didn't deter them.
By putting forward this argument they are saying blatantly that you
have no right to a fair trial and to justice unless you are rich
enough to pay for it. The Judge confirmed that this is how the Courts
work when he granted their request and ordered that the trial would be
heard without a jury.
Q. Have you received any legal help?
A. We have been given informal legal advice, which is very
helpful, but which is only available in the lawyers very limited free
time. We've done all the preparations and research ourselves, and
the drafting of legal documents, and we represent ourselves in court.
Meanwhile McDonald's have a full legal team, with a QC (Queens
Counsel), at least two solicitors, and several clerks.
Q. Are you intimidated by the opposition and the Courts?
A. We were at first, partly because everything is so complex, and
nobody ever explains all the procedures. At one hearing we asked the
Judge to explain something, and he said that if we didn't understand
then we should be represented by solicitors. He didn't tell us how
we should pay for them!
The Court deliberately mystifies all the procedures so that ordinary
people don't stand a chance on their own. We were criticised for not
being aware that when we exchanged witness statements they should
include ones written by ourselves about our involvement, nobody had
ever told us that we had to do this, we were just expected to know.
The longer the case goes on the more determined we are not to give in
even though it is extremely frustrating to be fighting McDonald's on
their own terms in the courts, which are obviously there to protect
the interests of the rich and powerful.
Q. When is the case going to be heard?
A. It has been set to begin on 28th February 1994, although we
are now applying to have the date put back, because of the huge
number of additional witness statements which McDonald's served in
January. We are also appealing against a number of pre-trial
decisions including the no jury one. If these appeals succeed the
trial date may be put back
Q. What if you lose at court?
A. We will get a bill for any damages set by the court, and a
bill for McDonald's costs, which are likely to be at least a quarter
of a million pounds. Obviously as we're both unwaged there's no way
we could pay that, so we would probably get made bankrupt. In any
event its unlikely that McDonald's will get any money from us.
McDonald's are also asking for an injunction if we lose, to stop us
from handing out leaflets about them. If we then continued to hand
out leaflets we could be jailed.
Q. Do you think you will be successful at the trial?
A. Although the trial itself will be a difficult battle, because
of our legal inexperience and the vast difference in resources
available to each side, we feel that the case has already been a
success on our side, because McDonald's have failed to get us to
apologise, or to stop the distribution of information about their
practices, which obviously was the sole intention of their starting
these proceedings. They have also failed to prevent us from getting
to trial, where the details of their practices will be aired in
public, and whether they win the trial or not, their image is going
to take a battering. They're obviously becoming more worried about
this, which is why their Vice-President now attends the court
McDonald's, and other multinationals, will be looking at this case to
see if they can get away with using the libel laws to censor any
criticism of their practices. It is important that the campaign
against McDonald's is stepped up to show them that people will not be
intimidated. It is vital that whatever the outcome of the case,
people continue to distribute leaflets and put out information to
counter the line put across by multinationals. Free speech must be