Climbing Mountains

In their relentless drive to stamp out all dissent, the McDonald's Corporation appear to have issued one libel writ too many. So what's it like to be a David and watch Goliath get seriously worried? Jim Carey talks to the heretics.

"I'll be over the moon when I get my life back," says Helen Steel. "It's not like I haven't got a life now but there's things I'd rather be doing."

Talk to Helen about her life and you can see her point. Prior to the attention of the McDonald's Corporation, she was happily digging her allotment. She worked for a time as a gardener and did both voluntary and paid work chauffeuring kids, pensioners, play-groups and people with disabilities around the north London borough of Haringey. She also worked with the civil rights and environmental group London Greenpeace: "It was all about people getting involved with their community and taking action for themselves rather than just writing off to politicians and asking them to take action for us."

One of those actions was to distribute an A5 leaflet critical of the conduct of the McDonald's Corporation. Should the reader have wanted more information, the leaflet suggested sending off for a 'Factsheet' called 'What's wrong with McDonald's?'. It is this second leaflet over which the McDonald's Corporation has since issued libel writs.

According to Helen, the decision to run a campaign critical of the McDonald's Corporation was made because of a perceived imbalance between the reality of the Corporation's conduct and the friendly mask presented to increase its sales.

"They were continually promoting this image of being an all-caring company and people felt there was a need to counter the endless stream of propaganda. At the time I was more involved in a campaign against the World Bank. I supported the McDonald's Campaign but I didn't have a big grudge against McDonald's."

Five years after the campaign had started, five members of London Greenpeace were issued with writs by the McDonald's Corporation, who demanded both a retraction and an apology for their involvement in distributing the 'What's wrong with McDonald's?' 'Factsheet'. As libel cases do not qualify for legal aid, three of the five decided to avoid a long legal struggle with McDonald's and formally apologised.

"The legal advice we were given was that we faced a completely uphill battle because the laws are so complex," recalls Helen. "We were told that we'd end up spending a lot of money we didn't have and at least a couple of years trying to fight the case. We were told we'd be better off just backing down and saving our money and energy for some other campaign."

But for Helen Steel's threshold of retreat, this was not an option.

"The only way we could get out of the court case was to apologise and I just felt they've got a big cheek even daring to ask us to apologise to them. They try and portray it that we chose to fight this case but I don't really see it as much of a choice to apologise for something that doesn't deserve an apology. To me it's just really offensive and there's no way I'd do it. Didn't really have an option - had to fight it."

As a result, Helen committed herself to standing against the McDonald's Corporation whether or not anyone else would stand with her. The fifth member of London Greenpeace under threat was Dave Morris, an ex-postman. When McDonald's issued their threat, Morris was more than busy looking after both his partner at the time, who was recovering from a serious accident, and their one year old son Charlie.

"Dave had loads of problems to sort out on the home front," recalls Helen. "When the other three said they were going to apologise, Dave said he would go with the flow because he knew he would not be able to take it on his own. But then Dave said that if I wanted to fight it, he would come in with me."

Ironically, Dave Morris considered that London Greenpeace had done enough to initiate the leaflet campaign against McDonald's and was in favour of moving on to other issues. That was before a McDonald's agent walked up to him in the street one day and handed him a libel writ.

"Politics is not a luxury, it's an essential - it's part of life," says Dave. "I did have substantial domestic problems at that time but it doesn't matter what else is happening in your life, you've got to do what you've got to do. You've still got to go to the toilet, you've still got to eat and you've still got to fight the system. You just have to fit it all in the best you can."

The two defendants took their case to the European Court of Human Rights asking for legal aid to be reinstated for libel cases or a simplification of the legal process. Unbelievably, before their case received a full hearing in the European Court it was ruled that the "tenacious defence" put up by the defendants so far showed that they were not being denied access to justice by the current UK libel laws.

"It was Catch 22," comments Dave. "You've no chance if you can't fight the case and you're penalised if you do."

"By that stage we'd been through so many pre-trial court hearings where judges had just ignored everything we'd said and yet listened to everything McDonald's had said," recalls Helen. "They had treated us in a really contemptuous way and I was getting sick of bashing my head against a brick wall.

" McDonald's must have been surprised that two individuals had decided to take them on at all. A previous history of proliferating libel threats had only ever brought them retractions and apologies.

"For the first two years McDonald's seemed to drag their feet as if they were hoping we'd just get fed up with the cumbersome legal procedure," recalls Helen Steel.

After five years involvement with London Greenpeace, Helen moved to Yorkshire, determined to get away from London and spend more time working on the land.

"We didn't know whether the case was ever going to happen and if it did happen, no-one had ever said it would last longer than a few weeks," she says. However, her aspiration to spend more time with the soil was soon nipped in the bud when the world's largest fast-food corporation decided to change gear.

Once it became obvious that Helen Steel and Dave Morris were determined to see it through, McDonald's legal department went straight on the offensive, pushing huge quantities of legal work on the two inexperienced libel defendants.

"Politics is not a luxury, it's an essential - it's part of've still got to go to the toilet, you've still got to eat and you've still got to fight the system. You just have to fit it all in the best you can."

"The case expanded massively, so I had to move back to London," says Helen.

The legal pace of the pre-trial procedures picked up dramatically.

"We were under continual stress from the winter of 92/93," says Dave. "We actually didn't know what was going on half the time because it was all new to us."

Indeed the stress of being plunged into to a full scale legal head to head with a transnational corporation took an initial toll on Helen:

"I developed eczema and felt like my health was deteriorating. If it didn't improve pretty soon I felt like I was gonna have to pull out. I would never have apologised to them. Effectively they would have got an injunction without a trial and could then have had us jailed if we handed out leaflets. At the time I felt like that couldn't be as stressful as the huge amounts of legal work and court procedures we were having to endure."

One of McDonald's most aggressive legal manoeuvres was to persuade the judge to issue an order demanding that the defendants produce witness statements to back up all areas of their defence within three weeks. Due to the extensive subject range of the allegedly libellous 'Factsheet', this was a huge task. Nutrition, employment, rainforest destruction, animal welfare, advertising techniques, diet and disease are all massive subjects in their own right and the 'Factsheet' contained information on all these. Under British libel laws every accusation had to be proven with primary evidence, such as witness statements.

It was then that Dave really clenched the bit between his teeth, collating 65 signed witness statements from around the world, all within the three week allotted time period. Both the judge and McDonald's legal representatives were visibly surprised when the defendants managed to meet the strict deadline.

"A few friends helped out and I got some statements, but most of it was down to Dave being pushy with people," recalls Helen. "I felt better after that and things picked up. "I'm just good on the phone," offers Dave by way of explanation. "It was a mountain to climb but people climb mountains."

"The next day we had a hearing in front of another judge who was slightly more human than the others," recalls Helen. "He actually listened to what we said. McDonald's were pushing for an early trial cos they knew we hadn't finished preparing and were hoping to steamroller the case through without giving us all the documents we were entitled to. The judge agreed to put the trial date back. That and managing to get the 65 witness statements were enough to keep me going."

Soon after that came the summer recess and a chance to breathe again after the initial onslaught. If the first rounds of the contest had been tough, the legal battles were due to get tougher, with McDonald's successfully arguing in court that the evidence to be presented in the case was too complex for a jury to understand. Thus the trial would be conducted without one, to the disadvantage of the defendants.

"McDonald's were insulting the intelligence of the public," says Dave Morris. "In reality, a jury would have been outraged that this case was ever allowed to brought at all. However, the public are now in effect the jury and they can draw their own conclusions based upon the evidence that has come out."

McDonald's next move was to make an attempt to nullify the defendants' collation of witness statements, asking the judge to strike out some parts of Helen and Dave's defence on the basis that witness statements had not been obtained to substantiate all the allegations made in the 'Factsheet'. This mainly involved international issues such as trade union disputes and rainforests, subjects on which it had obviously been harder for the defendants to obtain statements on within the three week period. Once again the judge agreed with the Corporation. However, in a landmark ruling, the Court of Appeal reinstated the whole defence, saying the defendants were entitled to rely on the cross-examination of witnesses during the course of trial to strengthen their case. Significantly, this meant that McDonald's were now required to disclose all relevant company documents on the reinstated issues, an obligation they had resisted so far. For Helen and Dave this was their first legal triumph.

Realising that the court case was going to be more substantial than it had originally thought, the McDonald's Corporation replaced its barrister and hired top British libel lawyer, Richard Rampton QC at the cost of £2000 a day. His briefing fee for the introduction to the case is estimated at around £1/2 million.

"It is really stressful having to be in court everyday and doing all the preparations, especially with Rampton hurling insults at us," says Helen.

Anyone who has attended what the national press have referred to as "the best free entertainment in town", will have heard the idiosyncratic Richard Rampton QC grunt and snort his way throughout the entire course of the proceedings. Just before the summer recess this year, McDonald's decided to withdraw an agreement by which they passed copies of the costly official court transcripts to both the judge and the defendants. The reasons given by McDonald's for this turnaround was that they objected to the McLibel Support Campaign's use of the transcripts in its media briefings. Rampton said in court that the consequential extra note-taking the defendants would have to do, would be "hard work", suggesting that the unwaged defendants would be "resistant to that". The defendants say this is just one of many cross-court comments made by Rampton to ruffle their confidence in court.

"He doesn't miss an opportunity to say something nasty and it's completely unnecessary," says Helen.

"I think its pathetic," adds Dave. "Looking at it from his point of view, he's just sitting there week after week with us putting McDonald's on trial. He's the prosecutor, the great QC, but in reality he's been sidelined. I think he feels left out."

Despite Rampton's conduct in court, the defendants still found that the unspoken rules of the court process worked in his favour.

"Judges assume that because lawyers are lawyers they are going to be honest, know what they're talking about and wouldn't mislead the judge. Everything they say is a kind of gospel," observes Helen.

One primary example of this came over the disclosure of documents pertaining to an advertising campaign conducted by McDonald's in the United States. As a result of the campaign, the Corporation had received a reprimand from three American State Attorney Generals for "pulling the wool over the public's eyes".

"McDonald's had to hand us a document about the advertising campaign but it had loads blanked out," recalls Helen. "Rampton argued that the blanked out parts were not relevant. We argued that since the memo was all about the different ads that had been run in the campaign, how could any part of it not be relevant? However, the Judge said 'Well I have to take Mr Rampton's word - if he says something's not relevant then I have to assume that is the case'."

It is part of the code of court that no legal representative should mislead the judge and, based on that assumption, the judge accepted Rampton's argument. The only way round this situation is to directly prove that the blanked out document is relevant, which of course is difficult if you are unable to ascertain what has been blanked out. Nevertheless, circumstance provided the defendants with a rare opportunity.

"Eventually we did get that document - it was quite funny," recalls Helen. "Rampton happened to go out of the court room just at the moment Dave was about to start questioning the witness about what was in this document. If Rampton had been there he would probably have objected to the questions. We got enough information out of the witness [David Green - Head of McDonald's Marketing] to show that the blanked out parts of the document were relevant and so the judge ordered that it should be disclosed."

It was a victory but one which was still difficult to capitalise upon.

"By the time the document was disclosed, the witness had left the witness box so we couldn't ask him questions about the information in it," says Helen.

The McLibel Support Campaign, set up in 1990 to back up the defendants stance, has played a major part in the co-ordination and dissemination of information exposed by the trial. The group is small in number but has acted as a focal point for sympathisers from all over the world. "It's the thousands of activists all round the world standing up to McDonald's and all that they stand for, that is what this campaign is all about," says Dave.

The McLibel Support Group also plays an essential part in collecting donations to pay for the running costs of the trial such as photocopying, telephone bills and witnesses fares. The office from which the Support Group is run is situated in a 15' by 10' spare room in central London, the floor of which also doubles up as the bed for the central co-ordinator, Dan Mills.

"It's really amazing what Dan is doing - the way he's kept it all together is a vital part of the work," says Helen. "If we didn't have Dan working in the office then I really think the whole thing might have collapsed." Mills is a qualified solicitor having spent two years working for the solicitor's firm of Lovell White Durrant. Up until March last year, he had been stationed out in Lovell's New York office where he had used his spare time to write a 'Vegan Guide to New York'.

"I'd heard about two people being sued by McDonald's before going to New York," recalls Mills. "I thought good luck to them but I didn't think they had a hope in hell of getting anywhere with it."

The last six months of his stint with Lovell's was spent back in London, working in the shipping litigation department, a subject that hardly engaged his interest. "I was definitely the odd one out," he chuckles.

During his last few months with the firm, Dan Mills became increasingly interested in the legal stance taken by the McLibel defendants. "I used to go to the McLibel office during my lunch breaks, go back to work for the afternoon and then return again in the evenings," he recalls.

After emerging as a newly qualified solicitor in September 1994, he joined the McLibel Support team full time. "It was a once in a lifetime opportunity," says Mills. "I wanted to get involved in the animal rights movement and to get away from being a corporate lawyer and at the time what was needed was for someone to set up and co-ordinate the McLibel office."

Since making the decision to lend his support, Mills has found himself learning more than he ever expected. "I came into it on an animal rights interest but since then I've had my eyes opened to so many other issues - advertising, nutrition, employment practices - the lot.

"The fact that they would take two unwaged people to court to try and stop them distributing a leaflet which really wasn't going to make great inroads into their business provokes a reaction from people. McDonald's advertising seems to be particularly insidious. They have this clown figure Ronald McDonald who is aimed towards children giving over this loving/caring/happy/fun/circus image, when the reality is totally different. What goes on behind closed doors is pretty horrific."

The lifestyle turnaround for Mills couldn't have been more dramatic. As a working solicitor he had helped represent major banks, large landlords and huge shipping firms. Now he finds himself sleeping on the floor of a small office with international faxes regularly bulging out of the machine at four in the morning.

"It can be a bit much sometimes, living and working in the same place. I have very few possessions here - I've kept my clothes to a minimum because it has to be an office principally. It doesn't really bother me that I have to bring in my mattress and make up a bed, although sometimes I feel like I want to have space to myself."

However, for Dan Mills, there are certainly no regrets.

"I get great motivation from being involved in this campaign. McDonald's are really not coming out of this very well at all and there's a great energy that comes from that. We're very much hand to mouth most of the time here, relying on donations coming in all the time, but it's definitely making waves."

Despite the legal mountain the defendants have been forced to climb, the journey has only persuaded them that they are on the right track. According to Helen, the opportunity to quiz a corporation's top executives is one not to be missed.

"Although it's been tedious being in court every day for the last year and a couple of months, it has produced a great amount of information about the inner workings of the company - things you don't normally get to hear. It's been great to cross-examine executives because normally if you do a protest outside the company's gates or you go up to head office, they just give you the brush off or a prepared statement; they can deflect any questions you have. In the witness box they can't turn around, walk away, ignore your questions and avoid telling you what's going on. They do try and do that in the witness box but if you're persistent you can force them to give an answer. We're quite lucky to have that opportunity."

""If we weren't defending the truth, we wouldn't have lasted a week ..."

McDonald's application to have the trial conducted without a jury, aswell as their decision to withhold the court transcripts from the defendants, seems to run contrary to the Corporation's assertion that they have nothing to hide. "Those taking part in the action should look at the facts and be aware of the truth," asserts Mike Love, Communications Director for McDonald's UK.

But the 'truth' is something both the defendants constantly refer to as their main driving force.

"People should ask themselves how we've managed to come this far in the case," says Helen. "If we weren't defending the truth, we wouldn't have lasted a week against such a massive multi-national with a top legal team and limitless financial resources at its disposal."

So is truth without finance bigger than lies with economic backing?

"The truth is always stronger in the end if people stand up and fight for it," observes Helen.

"It's dominated our lives but it's worth it," affirms Dave. "I get more determined every week. The main thing has got to be their success in promoting themselves - totally fanatical, egocentric and idiotic promotion of their completely non-descript company. They have forced their way into our streets, our living rooms and our minds. It's not just McDonald's that our case is about, its about telling the truth and fighting back against an oppressive and destructive economic system. McDonald's happen to be a bubble waiting to burst and we are determined that the truth behind the glossy image comes out."

Meanwhile, the defendants, having climbed several legal mountains, prepare themselves to climb yet more when the case recommences on September 25th.

"We spend virtually our whole time on this case, it's exhausting and does get a bit much from time to time," says Helen. "You have to get out and go for a walk or visit friends every now and again, otherwise you would just go mad."

In an attempt to keep herself "sane and effective", Helen recently took her bicycle to Scotland.

"Everytime I thought about McDonald's, I said to myself 'stop, don't think about them'," she laughs. "But I climbed up Ben Lomond one day and I was only up there a few minutes and this guy strolls up wearing a flintstones McDonald's t-shirt. On the design it said 'McDonald's - 90 billion people served'. I just so happened to have a couple of leaflets in my bag so I gave him one, I thought it was quite funny in a way. But I dunno, climb a bloody mountain and there's still a reminder of them. "