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Chief Justice Bell's Verdict
19th June 1997

McDonald's Corporation
First Plaintiff
McDonald's Restaurants Limited
Second Plaintiff
Helen Marie Steel
First Defendant
David Morris
Second Defendant
The Hon. Mr Justice Bell

(read in Open Court on Thursday, 19th June 1997)


This is a claim for libel brought by McDonald's Corporation, the First Plaintiff, and McDonald's Restaurants Limited, the Second Plaintiff, against Ms Helen Steel and Mr Dave Morris, the First and Second Defendants, and a counterclaim for libel brought by Ms Steel and Mr Morris against McDonald's Restaurants Limited.

McDonald's Corporation is a company incorporated in the State of Iowa, in the United States of America. It started business in 1955. It has its headquarters at Oakbrook near Chicago. It is responsible for a vast chain of McDonald's quick service restaurants throughout the world. The restaurants are owned and run by subsidiaries of McDonald's Corporation, or by franchisees or owner operators, or by joint ventures of McDonald's Corporation or its subsidiaries and outside partners. Together they make up the McDonald's system. The system and any individual part of it, down to individual restaurants, are all loosely referred to as "McDonald's".

These proceedings began with the issue of the writ on 20th September,1990. At the end of 1990, there were about 11,800 McDonald's restaurants in a total of 53 countries. About 8,600 of the restaurants were in the United States. Total systemwide sales were about 18.75 billion U.S. dollars. By the end of 1995, which is the latest time for which I have figures, there were about 18,400 restaurants in a total of 89 countries. About 11,400 of the restaurants were in the United States. Total systemwide sales had grown to nearly 30 billion U.S. dollars. No doubt all those figures are larger still by now.

The first McDonald's restaurant in Britain was opened in 1974 in Woolwich, south east London, as a joint venture between McDonald's Corporation and an American, Mr Robert Rhea, and another partner. Mr Rhea brought Mr Paul Preston, now the President and Chief Executive Officer of McDonald's Restaurants Limited, over from the U.S.A. to manage the Woolwich restaurant. According to Mr Preston it was the first "finger-feeding hamburger restaurant in the U.K." Mr Rhea retired in 1983 and McDonald's Restaurants Limited which was formerly called McDonald's Golden Arches Restaurants Limited, has been responsible for McDonald's restaurants in Britain since then. It is a wholly-owned subsidiary of McDonald's Corporation.

At the end of 1990 there were about 380 McDonald's restaurants in Britain. There were about 650 by the end of 1995. By May 1996, which is the latest time for which I have figures, there were 674. So new McDonald's restaurants have been opening in Britain at the rate of about one a week since these proceedings began.

McDonald's is very successful, as these figures show. Its success must primarily depend on the provision of what its customers want, which is the quick service of a limited menu of burgers and other fast foods which please their taste, in convenient, disposable containers, at an affordable price. Its success is promoted by vigorous marketing which portrays its brand image as a benevolent, community-based, family-aware, ever-growing, green giant providing consistent quality, service, cleanliness and value.

McDonald's Corporation and its subsidiaries, including McDonald's Restaurants Ltd, see an attractive image as commercially vital to themselves, their joint venture partners and franchisees, all of whom depend on the brand name and, therefore, on the attraction of the brand image to existing and potential customers.

Not everyone, however, loves McDonald's.

From some time in the early or mid 1980s a group of people calling itself "Greenpeace [London]" or "London Greenpeace" ran an anti-McDonald's campaign. From 1986 onwards, a six page leaflet - "What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know." - was at the heart of the campaign.

The leaflet accused McDonald's of being responsible for starvation in the Third World, of destroying vast areas of Central American rainforest, of serving unhealthy food with a very real risk of cancer of the breast or bowel and heart disease and food poisoning, of lying when it claimed to use recycled paper, of exploiting children with its advertising and marketing, of cruelty to animals, and of treating its employees badly; all the while deceiving the public and hiding its true nature behind a clean, bright image.

The leaflet was published at a time when there was growing public awareness of issues affecting the environment and the relationship of diet to health. Animal welfare and mass media advertising attracted campaigners. Working conditions have always been the subject of debate. A "multinational" like McDonald's has an influence for good or ill in all those areas. That influence grows and spreads as the number of McDonald's restaurants increases and the system opens up in new countries.

Ever alert to public perceptions, McDonald's became concerned about the leaflet, particularly in this country where it originated. The leaflet was seen as defamatory of McDonald's Corporation as the body responsible for McDonald's as a whole, and of McDonald's Restaurants Limited as the company operating in the country where the leaflet was produced. Its contents were seen by people inside McDonald's as completely untrue and going beyond any legitimate criticism, and as part of a campaign to destroy the businesses of McDonald's Corporation and McDonald's Restaurants Limited, to "smash" McDonald's, regardless of the truth.

In 1989 a decision was made to try to stop further publication of the leaflet. Attempts were made to obtain cogent evidence identifying the members of London Greenpeace, who were responsible for publishing the leaflet, and in September,1990, proceedings were started against Ms Steel, Mr Morris and three others, Paul Gravett, Andrew Clarke and Jonathan O'Farrell. The writ and Statement of Claim sought damages and an injunction restraining further publication of the words complained of in the leaflet.

In due course, Mr Gravett, Mr Clarke and Mr O'Farrell apologised for the contents of the leaflet. They fell from the case. Whether their apologies were given because they had no answer to McDonald's claims, as McDonald's would say, or because they could not face a long and costly court case, as they would say, is immaterial to the decisions which I have to make. Ms Steel and Mr Morris fought on. They denied that they had been involved in the publication of the leaflet. They took some issue as to just what the leaflet meant. They alleged that the words complained of were true or that they were fair comment on matters of public interest. McDonald's Corporation and McDonald's Restaurants Limited denied this.

In the run up to the trial which eventually began on 28th June 1994, the case received publicity, some of which was unfavourable to McDonald's who were portrayed in some quarters as bullies who were trying to stifle freedom of speech. Between March and May,1994, the U.K. company produced and published a press release, a leaflet and a background briefing to explain why McDonald's was going to court. Ms Steel and Mr Morris took those publications to call them liars and to make other defamatory statements about their conduct.

So Ms Steel and Mr Morris counterclaimed damages for libel from the U.K. company which took issue with the meaning of the words complained of and alleged that what had been said was true or protected by qualified privilege as a necessary, reasonable and legitimate response to a public attack made on it, or prompted, by Ms Steel and Mr Morris. Ms Steel and Mr Morris denied this.

Those were the broad battle lines.

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