McDonald's cries libel, sues environmentalists

Bill Glauber

The Baltimore Sun, February 2, 1995

They're dragging Ronald McDonald into a libel trial. And Happy Meals. And two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.

It's the McLibel Case. Goliath against David. The barristers in traditional black gowns and powdered wigs against a pair of radical environmentalists who dress in jeans and sweat shirts and forage for documents in dusty backpacks and used plastic bags.

McDonald's Restaurants UK and McDonald's Corp. of the United States are suing Dave Morris and Helen Steel for libel because they participated in the production of a leaflet assailing McDonald's.

Using such words as McDollars, McGreedy, McCancer, McMurder, McDisease, McProfits, McDeadly, McHunger, McRip-off, McTorture, McWasteful, McGarbage, it accused the fast-food chain of practically every sin conceivable against nature and the human race.

And the environmental activists are undaunted by the McDonald's suit. Instead they have turned the trial into an examination of the standards and practices of a $ 24 billion-a-year company that made the Big Mac famous.

The trial, which began last July, looks as if it will shatter records, becoming the longest libel case in Great Britain.

It's going to cost McDonald's some $ 3 million in legal fees, according to published reports.

Still, after all the time, money and negative publicity the case has generated, McDonald's UK President Paul Preston sees value in the case:

"Is your reputation worth it? If you think establishing the truth is worth it, then, I'm glad to be here."

And so are Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel.

"It is very stressful and very exhausting all the time," Ms. Steel said. "But you do the work. It's important to stand up and defend freedom of speech."

At the heart of the suit is a "fact sheet" produced in the mid-1980s by a small group of environmental activists with London Greenpeace (no relationship to Greenpeace International).

The leaflet accused McDonald's of environmental damage, animal cruelty, worker exploitation, promoting an unhealthy diet and manipulating children through advertising.

Small as the group was, McDonald's decided that it could not let the allegations stand.

After McDonald's conducted a lengthy investigation that included sending private investigators to London Greenpeace meetings, five members were served with libel writs. Three of the five apologized.

But Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel refused.

"The cost of not fighting this case would be much greater to us than losing," Mr. Morris said.

He's 40, a bearded, shaggy-haired former post office worker with a 5-year-old son. She's 29, a former gardener, with long brown hair and a quick smile.

"When we first started this, it was all kind of intimidating," Mr. Morris said. "We've learned as we've gone along."

"We were told that, with no legal training or research, we would never get this far," Ms. Steel said. "Well, we have."

The British legal system isn't exactly user-friendly. Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel received two hours of free legal advice, and then, unable to secure money to pay attorneys, they were on their own, confronted with Great Britain's libel laws.

In contrast to the United States, where it is necessary to also prove malice -- defined as knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for truth -- public figures and corporations here have only to prove that a false, printed statement caused financial damage, public ridicule or harm to reputation.

The system is daunting enough for barristers, let alone two amateurs.

Two years ago, Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel tried to get the European Court of Human Rights to order the British government to provide them with free legal aid.

That failed.

They tried for a jury trial. That failed, too.

They slogged their way through 28 pretrial hearings spread across a year.

Now, they are in the midst of a case that could be filled with testimony from 180 witnesses, and which might not end until December.

Conservative pundit Auberon Waugh has called the trial "the best free entertainment in London."

To see Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel spar with the McDonald's chief lawyer, Richard Rampton, is to see two worlds colliding.

The activists are unschooled in the art of legal maneuvering. Their questions are scatter-shot and personal.

Mr. Rampton, by contrast, is calm, cool, deliberate, in perfect harmony with the commanding and cavernous room No. 35 at London's High Court.

When Mr. Morris was admonished for referring to his co-defendant and one of the plaintiff's solicitors by their first names, Mr. Rampton complained, "He'll be calling me Dickie next."

Overseeing it all with an often exasperated look on his face is Justice Roger Bell, who will eventually decide the case.

Already, the trial has bounced from discourse on industrial relations to the living conditions of animals raised to be slaughtered for McDonald's.

Even the clown character Ronald McDonald was analyzed.

Packaging, littering and employment practices are yet to be discussed.

The case has produced 30,000 pages of documents. And amid the clutter of 224 notebooks scattered around the courtroom are McDonald's cardboard containers, trays and Happy Meal boxes.

Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel are confident that they can win the case. But don't expect them to be prowling around courthouses the rest of their lives.

"I would never be a solicitor," Ms. Steel said. "Having seen how the legal system works, I never want to see it this close up again."

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