On Monday 27 June, the High Court in London is the setting for an extraordinary David versus Goliath legal battle. On one side is McDonald's, the multinational fast food chain, represented by Richard Rampton QC, one of the country's most experienced and expensive libel lawyers. On the other are Dave Morris and Helen Steel, two unwaged environmental activists, who will represent themselves in a trial that could take up to six months.
"A business leader must be an environmental leader as well," says McDonald's, whose promotional literature insists it takes "whatever action is necessary to lead in both word and deed". Morris and Steel, dubbed the McLibel Two, disagree. Their criticisms of McDonald's environmental, nutritional, advertising and employment practices are contained in a "Factsheet" entitled What's Wrong With McDonald's, that has been in circulation in several countries since the mid-1980s.
The group distributing the leaflet outside McDonald's shops in Britain, "London Greenpeace" (unrelated to the international body), was investigated by the multinational, which in 1990, served writs for libel against six of the organisation's activists. Two, Morris and Steel, refused to comply. McDonald's is now taking them to court, claiming massive damages that neither Morris nor Steel have any hope of ever paying.
Every day, McDonald's serves food or drink to one million people from more than 500 UK outlets (projected to increase to 1,000 within the next ten years). It has more than 30,000 employees in this country. In the US, it is estimated that 7 per cent of the workforce now have their first experience of work at McDonald's. Internationally, the company spends over a billion dollars a year on advertising and promotion. Image is all-important to the fast food empire, which is desperate to be seen as environmentally and nutritionally sound.
McDonald's is accused of conducting a campaign of legal intimidation to silence its critics. The trade union-funded Transnational Information Centre was forced to pulp the entire edition of Working for Big Mac, a pamphlet it had published documenting the corporation's employment practices. As a result, the TIC went bust. McDonald's has served writs on national papers, including the Guardian and Today, against Scottish trade union branches which financed a local theatre group production called Jimmy McBurgers, and has kept the film Jungleburgers off television screens for several years.
Unlike previous targets, Morris and Steel have stood their ground. As a result, the burger giant has been forced into court. In the past year, 27 pre-trial hearings lasting up to five days have already cost McDonald's millions. The judge ruled against a jury trial on the grounds of the complexity of the case. With the aid of Liberty, Morris and Steel challenged the ruling, but lost on appeal.
Discovery motions filed by Morris and Steel have produced mountains of documents, but the defendants still claim that pertinent information is being withheld from them. At a pre-trial hearing, they forced three top McDonald's executives to swear on oath that no other papers existed.
Morris and Steel have filed a counter-claim for libel. "Libel is not about seeking out the truth but forcing defendants into silence," explains Morris, a 40-year-old single parent and ex-postal worker. "All the burden of proof is on us. But the counterclaim means the burden of proof is now shared. McDonald's has been saying in effect that all its critics are liars. Now we will be trying to force the company to prove this assertion, which we contend is libellous. It's McDonald's, not us, who should apologise and pay compensation for the damage they have done."
The McLibel Two appear to have McDonald's worried. The company has issued a leaflet, available in all its UK outlets, headed Why McDonald's is Going to Court. It claims the attempt to silence Morris and Steel "is not about freedom of speech; it is about the right to stop people telling lies."
The McLibel Two received some support in an Early Day Motion tabled by Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn's motion, protected by parliamentary privilege, notes McDonald's "grandiose, hypocritical and sometimes false claims about its (concern' over environmental and social matters" cites its "mountains of unnecessary packaging" and its promotion of "the type of food and diet linked to tooth decay, hyperactivity in children, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer". The motion also accuses the corporation of cattle ranching "on ex-rainforest land" and "exploiting workers with low pay, poor conditions, authoritarian management and opposition to trades unions".
Morris and Steel have had to assimilate a huge amount of legal knowledge in a short time. "It has been an uphill struggle in a hostile environment," admits Morris. "We're learning as we go along. It's not just about the details of the law. It's about learning to see through the manipulation and hypocrisy of the whole legal system."
Morris and Steel will call 75 witnesses, including 30 former McDonald's staff members and experts on rainforest, diet, packaging and advertising, from Britain, the US, Australia, Germany and elsewhere. McDonald's plans to call 90 witnesses, including senior executives from the US and Britain. First off for the plaintiff will be Paul Preston, president of McDonald's UK operation.
"We've already won because we've refused to be intimidated," Morris insists. "We are the first to defy McDonald's writs. They failed to keep us out of court, despite all the legal manoeuvres."
Steel, aged 28, a former gardener, says: "This case is about the public's right to criticise the business practices of multinationals. We had to fight it all the way."
The McLibel Two's secret weapon is simply that they have nothing to lose. Whatever happens in court, McDonald's will be out of pocket by millions of pounds--which goes to show just how vital it is to the burger behemoth to silence its critics.
Without resources or legal expertise, Morris and Steel have already given McDonald's a run for its money. The trial promises to be an eye-opener. Morris and Steel are asking for donations to pay witnesses' fares and expenses. They urge supporters to join them in a demonstration outside the High Court on the first day of the trial from 9.30am to 11 am.
The McLibel Support Campaign can be contacted c/o London Greenpeace, 5 Caledonian Rd, London N1, tel: 071-837 7557