The longest libel case in
WHEN MCDONALD'S DECIDED TO SUE
environmentalists Helen Steel and Dave
Morris for distributing a leaflet, it appears that they bit off more
than they could chew. The trial, which began in June 1994, has become
the longest in British history and looks set to continue until spring
British history rumbles on,
with McDonald's taking on the environmentalists.
The fast-food giant, which seems about as hungry for a bit of court
action as the late Robert Maxwell, is said to estimated to have notched
up a legal bill running into millions of pounds. And because neither
Helen nor Dave have any money to speak of, there is no chance of the
company ever recouping the costs.
McDonald’s decided to take legal action to protect its reputation in the
face of numerous allegations made in a leaflet which included claims
that the company was responsible for destruction of rain forests, that
its food was linked to cancer and heart disease, and that it exploited
its staff. The leaflet also claimed that McDonald’s advertising
exploited children, a claim which was supported by a statement for the
defence from non other than Geoffrey Guiliano, the actor who used to
play the part of Ronald McDonald.
In the absence of funds to match McDonald’s’ $29.9 billion annual
revenue, Helen and Dave are defending themselves. But they have still
managed to hold their own in court. In cross examination of company
witnesses, they got McDonald’s Vice President of marketing to say that
Coca-Cola is nutritious because it contains water. The trial also
appears to have unleashed a worldwide backlash against McDonald’s.
Nevertheless, McDonald’s spokesman Mike Love remains unrepentant over
the mounting legal bill or the length of the trial: “It’s not our
intention to put a figure on it, we don’t consider that to be the real
“What we are concerned about is that the serious allegations made are
challenged and that the truth is known. One of the problems with this
sort of situation is that when people repeat things long enough other
people start believing them in good faith,” he says, paraphrasing a
well-known German propaganda minister.
Love believes that it is premature to talk of appeals in the unlikely
event that McDonald’s lose their case on any of the 32 alleged libels.
But should the ‘McLibel Two’ succeed in their defence, the litigation
looks set to go on. The pair allege they were libelled by a McDonald’s
press statement issued at the beginning of the trial, and have filed a
countersuit against the multinational.
Should this suit go ahead, it might not be the only court case to follow
the ‘McLibel’ trial. In the wake of a Scottish woman recently being
threatened with legal action if she refused to change the name of her
cafe from McMunchies, Aberdonian Ronald McDonald, 61, considered taking
legal action to protect his good name.
“McDonald’s didn’t come to me when they set up their first restaurant
and ask if they could use our name. Perhaps I should be getting in touch
with them and extracting royalties,” he said.
And no sooner had the original Ronald McDonald appeared in the press,
when Lord Godfery McDonald, the bona fide chief of the clan, said he was
also considering legal action.
If these threats are carried out, the hamburger chain might soon lose
its appetite for litigation.
The case continues.
– Olaf Furniss
10 McDonald's trademarks|
1 Hamburger University
2 Good Jobs for Good People
3 You deserve your break today
4 Mac Attack
6 Healthy Growing Up
7 McDonald's Means Opportunity
8 Have you had your break today?
9 What's on your plate
'Aberdonian Ronald McDonald,
61, considered taking legal
action to protect his good name'
The McSpotlight site
claims to sort the
truth from the lies...
What is McSpotlight?
"People can come there and
A tiny room where a dog tries to stick its snout into your nads before
you can even get your jacket off does not conjure up images of Mission
Control of a massive website, McSpotlight, which has been irritating
McDonald’s since February. Yet from this secret location in a North
London flat, a group of activists have been charting the McLibel case
and attracting almost as many hits as the site where Pamela Anderson
tucks into Tommy Lee’s sausage.
decided for themselves
who is right and who is wrong."
“For a while, McDonald’s were our number one customer,” explains Brian,
who, along with fellow McSpotlight members Charles and David, finds
space amid the mountain of computers. “In the first week they
[McDonald’s] had accessed the site hundreds of times. You can see who
has visited your site, and we tracked it down to McDonald’s, who’d
visited every page on the site in the first week,” adds David.
“The McLibel trial had been going on for quite a long time, and there
was masses of information coming out which revealed some real good dirt
on McDonald’s. But it was just not getting out, because the traditional
media are all very scared and worried that they’re going to get sued for
After weeks of work, the group got enough like-minded people together,
but almost failed to meet their launch date when the necessary mobile
phone, laptop and Nokia data card they’d been promised failed to
materialise. But at the last minute the day was saved when a mysterious
man with a white beard and a large brimmed hat appeared with the goods.
“When I tried to phone him to thank him, the number I’d first contacted
him on turned out to be a telephone box,” says Charles. “Now he’s known
as the laptop fairy. He came along, lent us the equipment, and
To ensure the well-being of the site, McSpotlight’s main server is
housed by a sympathetic Internet Service Provider in Holland with
experience in taking on the well-heeled Church of Scientology. With
mirror sites in the USA, New Zealand and Finland, it’s unlikely
McDonald’s can put a stop to it.
“Any upfront attempt at destroying the site would only benefit us
because of the publicity, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t try
something a bit sneaky and underhand,” says Charles, who along with the
others admits that the thought of being sued has crossed his mind.
McDonald’s spokesman Mike Love says legal action in foreign courts is
not something that’s been considered. “I’m not aware of any action that
could be taken, regardless of where the servers are. The allegations
made are the subject of a High Court action which reaches its conclusion
soon, so I think we would wait for a judgement before we consider any
Despite reproducing the allegedly libellous leaflet on the McSpotlight
site, Dave is adamant that all the content is above board. “We keep all
the information as factual and accurate as possible. We don’t put up
stories inciting people to commit acts of violence or lie about
McDonald’s’ business practices,” he explains.
“People can come there and decide for themselves who is right and who is
wrong. It’s not like we’re going to impose anything on them. We’re
saying judge for yourself,” adds Brian.
The McSpotlight site aims
To encourage discussion, the site has a special debating room; although
this has been a source of confusion for some hamburger eaters in the
States who appear to think that it is part of the official McDonald’s
to encourage debate
about McDonald's practices:
"We keep all the information as factual as possible. We don't put up stories inciting people to commit acts of violence or lie about McDonald's business practices."
The group also likes to incorporate humour into their action. The
website features a gallery of billboard ads which have acquired the
McSpotlight Web address. And the group recently got permission to video
a licensing committee meeting of Camden Council where McDonald’s were
applying for a licence extension. Permission to film was granted on
condition that a copy of the video was made available to Camden Council
and McDonald’s. “We sent them an invoice for the video,” laughs Charles.
“It was actually supposed to go to the solicitors, but we thought it
would be really funny if we could get a cheque from McDonald’s. We never
thought they would actually go for it. So now we’ve got a cheque from
McDonald’s to McSpotlight signed by Paul Preston, who’s the president of
The group hope to provide a blueprint for similar action around the
country, and also aim to focus on other multinationals they believe are
unethical. But to fund their activities, the site features a merchandise
section entitled Money. “I think we should get sponsorship from the
phone companies, because we alone have spent £400 on the phone in three
months. If you put together all the people around the world who have
been logging into our site it’s staggering – phone companies make more
money than McDonald’s,” says Charles. www.McSpotlight.org/