Trial that is eating lives of ' McLibel Two'

Environmentalist 'heroes' pay heavy price for fight, writes Danny Penman

The Independent, June 5, 1995

McDonald's has taken over Dave Morris's life and invaded his home. Bundles of legal documents relating to the McDonald's libel trial, now almost a year old, lie scattered across his makeshift office.

The trial is due to resume today after a week off to allow him to look after Charlie, his nine-year- old son, who is on a half-term holiday. Dave Morris and his co-defendant, Helen Steel, are defending themselves against the might of the $ 25bn burger chain.

Mr Morris, a single parent and unemployed environmentalist, juggles looking after his son and fighting McDonald's on a daily basis.

Both defendants are paying a heavy price for allegedly being involved with distributing a leaflet that accuses the American burger chain of various acts of environmental destruction and says its food is linked to heart disease and cancer.

McDonald's began taking legal action against the " McLibel Two" in 1990. Convinced they would back down like many before them, the burger chain pursued the pair through 28 pre-trial hearings before confronting them in the High Court in London last June.

The trial was originally scheduled to last three weeks but McDonald's had not counted on the tenacious fighting skills of the two defendants. It is now scheduled to go on until January, but may last considerably longer. McDonald's says it is suing the pair to clear its name. But instead of vindicating the company's environmental record, the nutritional quality of its food, and the treatment of its workforce, the case has become a public relations nightmare.

The McLibel Two are fighting because they regard it as a privilege to drag McDonald's carefully manicured image through the mud.

"McDonald's sued us so its their problem. We're concerned about the issues that are vital for society to take action over. We're concerned about the exploitation of workers, consumers, the environment and animals," Dave Morris said.

He added that they wanted to see a better society based on the community controlling the resources and respecting the environment. They want to see exploitation replaced by co-operation.

"At the end of the 20th century it is becoming increasingly clear that the world cannot sustain capitalism for much longer. There has to be an alternative."

To the McLibel Two, the case is less about McDonald's and more about the behaviour of multinationals in general. McDonald's to them "is a symbol of aggressive capitalist expansion and their increasing dominance over peoples lives," he said.

But the relentless workload is beginning to take its toll. The pair had to learn the legal system on their feet. Initially they went to a lawyer under the green form scheme and received two hours of free legal advice.

But the lawyers likened the case to an unassailable mountain and suggested they find something better to do with their lives over the coming three or four years.

Undeterred they sought help from Liberty - the former National Council for Civil Liberties - and continue to receive occasional assistance from McKenzie's friends, who offer free legal advice.

In contrast, the chain employed one of the country's best libel QCs, backed by a crack team of lawyers.

The trial has eaten up their lives. Charlie, Mr Morris's son broke his leg a few weeks ago. McDonald's objected to an adjournment, which would have allowed Mr Morris to look after him, so the case continued. Ms Steel had to handle the case alone on several days when Mr Morris was forced to stay at home.

Their lives have to fit around the trial. The case is heard for only six or seven hours a day. But the real work is done at their own homes when documents and witness statements are scoured for inaccuracies that they can exploit in court the next day.

They continue because they wish to check McDonald's world-wide expansion. They resent the way the burger chain has mushroomed from a handful of outlets 40 years ago into one of the world's most recognised fast-food chains.

On a more mundane level, the expansion of McDonald's across Britain over the past two decades is illustrated in Mr Morris's office. Pinned to the wall is a map of the burger chain's outlets.

At the bottom is a newspaper headline - "McDonald's faces libel kiss of death".

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