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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)

Some general principles

Since Ms Steel and Mr Morris did, in my JUDGEMENT, publish the factsheet to the extent which I have just set out, I must next consider the meaning of the factsheet, whether it is defamatory of either Plaintiff in any respect and, if so, whether either Defendant nevertheless has a defence to a claim of libel. In this summary I will mention some, only, of the most fundamental principles which apply.

The Court should give to the material complained of the natural and ordinary meaning which it would have conveyed to the ordinary, reasonable reader.

The meaning intended to be conveyed by the author or publisher of the material complained of is irrelevant.

Portions of text, headlines, pictures and cartoons in a leaflet, can not be read in isolation from each other. This is important in this case where there has been a tendency to take individual sentences in the leaflet, with a view to justifying them, without regard to their context.

A statement is defamatory of a Plaintiff if it would tend to lower the Plaintiff in the estimation of right thinking members of society generally or would be likely to affect the Plaintiff adversely in the estimation of reasonable people generally.

The essence of the tort of defamation in English law is the protection of the reputation of a person whether a living human person or a legal fiction such as a corporation or a company. A company has a trading character which may be destroyed by libel, but the words complained of must attack the company in the method of conducting its business or affairs. The question for the court is whether the words complained of contain statements with regard to the Plaintiff company's conduct of its business, tending to show that it was so improper or inefficient as to bring it into contempt or discredit.

It is not necessary to prove any particular financial loss or "special damage", provided that damage to its goodwill is likely.

Where a Plaintiff establishes the publication of words which are defamatory, he has established his claim subject to the Defendant proving that he has a defence to the claim. The Plaintiff does not have to prove that the defamatory words are false. The law presumes that the defamatory words are false until the contrary is shown.

However, it is a complete defence to an action for libel to show that defamatory statements of alleged fact are true in substance and in fact. This is the defence of "justification" and it was the primary defence of Ms Steel and Mr Morris in this case. They contended that the substance of what is said in the factsheet is true.

The burden of proving that the substance of the words is true lies on the Defendant even though the Plaintiff may have set out to prove that the words are in fact false, as McDonald's have done in many instances in this case. Again the standard of proof is the balance of probabilities.

It is no defence of justification of a defamatory matter that the Defendant was merely repeating what he or she had been told or that he or she believed that what was said was true. The defence of justification does not extend to cover misstatements of fact even if the statement of alleged fact is made in good faith about a matter of public interest. There is no general freedom in English law to make defamatory misstatements of fact with impunity provided that they are made about a matter of public interest or about a person or trading corporation of public importance, in the genuine belief that they are true.

Quite apart from any question of justification it is a defence to an action for libel that the words complained of are fair comment on a matter of public interest.

There is no doubt that the statements made in the leaflet complained of relate to matters of public interest, and during the trial the Defendants repeatedly described one statement or another in the leaflet as fair comment or as a comment which they were entitled to make.

However, the defence of "fair comment" is available only in relation to statements which are expressions of opinion and not defamatory statements of fact. A comment is a statement of opinion on facts, and the defence of fair comment does not extend to cover misstatements of fact, however bona fide.

Save for one sentence, I have come to the conclusion that the defamatory statements in the leaflet complained of taken in their context, are statements of fact, and not comments or expressions of opinion. The introduction promises the reader of the leaflet the true facts about McDonald's, and what follows throughout the leaflet is a series of categoric statements of alleged fact.

It follows that the real issue in the case is whether the statements of alleged fact, where they are defamatory of the Plaintiffs, have been shown to be true.

Although the leaflet stands to be judged as a whole, it falls into different sections, each with its own introductory headline, and I propose to take them in the order in which they appear.

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