Bun Fight

Sarah Boseley uncovers the personal beef behind Helen Steel's very public battle with McDonald's

The Guardian, July 11, 1995

HELEN STEEL has the slightly sullen expression of the wise child, wary of an adult world that may not take her seriously. There is no polite smile of greeting, but a cautious assessment - are you with me or against me - from the frank blue eyes under long hair that makes her look like a student, younger than her 29 years.

Yet with fellow London Greenpeace campaigner Dave Morris, she is defending a libel action against one of the world's most powerful multi-nationals, the McDonald's Corporation. Most remarkably, the McLibel Two, representing themselves in the High Court, pitting their income support against McDonald's millions, have succeeded in dragging into the public domain so much detail about the company's entirely legitimate business practices that the exasperated burger giant has been flying executives over from the US to try to negotiate a settlement.

McDonald's apparent underestimation of its adversary has landed it with the public relations fiasco of a David and Goliath clash. The threat of bankruptcy is brushed aside by the unmaterialistic, unemployed Steel and Morris. All Steel stands to lose is her integrity, she says, if she is intimidated, as she sees it, into dropping the campaign. She insists that McDonald's must apologise to her and withdraw completely before she settles.

If the Corporation wins, and she is ordered not to distribute the offending leaflets again, she is prepared to go to jail. That will be about as useful a public relations spectacle for McDonald's as the burning of Joan of Arc was for Anglo-French rapport.

Helen Steel hates speaking in front of television cameras. But behind her diffidence lies real anger. "It makes me angry that multi-nationals can use the libel laws in this country to try to silence their critics," she says.

Did she anticipate that fighting the case would take over her life?

"No, no. But I didn't really have any choice. They said if we apologised they would drop the case, but as far as we're concerned, what was on those leaflets is the truth. I was angry that they even had the cheek, the nerve, to ask us to apologise to them. It is them who should be apologising to us."

She objects to just about everything multi-nationals like McDonald's do and stand for. She hates the promotion of burgers that the London Greenpeace leaflet alleges are not nutritious (low fibre, high fat, saturated fat, sodium and sugar) through razzmatazz aimed at children. She hates the commercial pursuit of profit. The leaflet criticised everything from packaging to the battery rearing of chickens used for McNuggets to low staff wages.

If she ever had another life, it is now hard to glimpse. The trial has been a big attraction in the High Court for a year and may run to next March, Steel says. Before that were four years of preparation and 28 pre-trial hearings, which they struggled through with no legal knowledge. Now they have rather more.

Steel is reticent about her past; she was upset by what she saw as personal intrusion early on. "I got the writ served outside the house of my close friend (she hates the word boyfriend) at the time. I had the feeling I must have been followed there."

Reluctantly, she reveals that she spent the first half of her childhood in Lancashire, but moved to Surrey when she was nine for her father to find work. She accepts that what happened at her new school might have had an influence on her later life: "There were a few individuals who made a thing of my accent, girls who were a real pain because I was new and they wanted someone to pick on. It wasn't until I stood up for myself that they backed off."

It is her analogy. "Basically, McDonald's are trying to silence us. We have got to stand up to them to call their bluff."

Having found her feet, she was unmoveable at school. She liked the outdoors and animals, and wanted to work in farming, so she and a friend asked to do agriculture O level. "Only the boys were allowed to do it. We had to find some who'd swap with us and do home economics."

It led to another watershed in her life. She was taken to slaughterhouses and battery farms as part of the course. Appalled by what she saw, she became a vegetarian and the school open day found her manning a stall with a mock-up of a veal calf in a crate, calling on parents to sign a petition to stop the trade.

The growing outrage was not confined to animals, however. "I used to work in a supermarket on Saturdays and things that happened there made me angry about how people were treated. We were told to stay late without any notice, or weren't paid for the extra hours. The management just said, if you don't like it, there are plenty more people on the dole queue who want a job. Big companies treat workers as bits of machinery rather than human beings."

She got six O levels, including agriculture, but left halfway through the sixth form. She was unemployed for two years, unable to find work in horticulture. She did voluntary work and became involved in campaigning. She liked London Greenpeace (separate from International Greenpeace) because it was run as a small, open collective. "It was about taking action yourself, rather than leaving it up to the people at the top."

She is, she admits now, totally suspicious of people in authority; the case has been an eye-opener, she says, in terms of the internal workings of a big company: "Most of what you see and hear is the image they create for themselves."

To McDonald's increasing consternation, its executives have been paraded through the witness box, revealing the not always attractive mechanics of a giant food company. The McLibel Two have made the most of it. Steel was delighted when extracts from an Operations Manual were read out in court: "Ronald loves McDonald's and McDonald's food. And so do children, because they love Ronald. Remember, children exert a phenomenal influence when it comes to restaurant selection. You should do everything you can to appeal to children's love for Ronald and McDonald's." Then there was the UK marketing services manager who stated: "It is our objective to dominate the communications area . . . because we are competing for a share of the customer's mind."

Steel is absorbed, obsessed, committed, but caged; she had escaped London for Yorkshire before the trial, but has had to come back. She'll do whatever it takes, but finds it hard to come to terms with the idea that she may be shut in the stone-vaulted High Court for months. "I want to go somewhere beautiful and quiet," she says. "I love mountains."

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