Suit with a side order of fries

A fast-food corporation may have met its match in a postman and a bar-worker

Tariq Tahir

The Scotsman, 19 December 1995

Press Index

WHEN McDonald's issued a writ for libel against Dave Morris and Helen Steel, Yugoslavia still existed and Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Last Monday McLibel, as it has inevitably become known, crawled its way into British legal history to become its longest-running civil case.

David and Goliath have nothing on this fight. The contrast in clothing says it all. It is the battle of the wig and gown against the jumper.

On the one side the multinational icon - represented by the pillar of the legal establishment, Richard Rampton QC and the other, environmental activists Dave Morris, unemployed postman and single father, and Helen Steel who works part time in a bar.

The case centres on the claims made in a leaflet distributed by London Greenpeace. It said that McDonald's food was linked with a number of diseases and that it was responsible for widespread environmental damage as well as exploitation of its workers. It also questioned the ethics of advertising aimed at children.

The allegation had been made before, but McDonald's successfully managed to silence critics through swift legal action. Dave Morris and Helen Steel, however, decided to fight the libel writ that was issued in September 1990.

Dave Morris says: "Richard Rampton said that in his estimate the trial would take three to four weeks. That's because they thought they could walk all over us - we wouldn't be able to administrate, get witnesses to court and cross-examine them. They thought we would be overawed but we proved them wrong."

The former assistant attorney of Texas, who once threatened to sue McDonald's for claiming its food was nutritious, is one of the 180 witnesses to have have been called so far. These have included some of McDonald's top brass, in addition to scientific witnesses, former employees and members of the public.

There have been some telling exchanges so far. In September, Robert Beavers, senior vice-president, was asked compare an extract from a London Greenpeace leaflet, which stated that a diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt, and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals is linked with cancer and heart disease, with an extract from a McDonald's pamphlet. His reply: "I can't spot any difference."

For Dave Morris, the length of the case is easily explained. "The only reason, we feel, that we've been able to fight the case this long is that we're telling the truth. If we weren't we'd have been slaughtered by now. Their witnesses start off with the standard company line and sometimes it takes days to break that down and get at the information that we want. We've managed to get admissions from them and that's what has given us the boost to carry on."

In a libel case the burden of proof lies with the defendent. What Helen Steel and Dave Morris have done is gradually and subtly turned the tables on McDonald's so that the corporation finds itself defending its reputation.

"It's so difficult to defend to a libel case," says Steel. That's how McDonald's has been able to silence critics in the past, because the law is so complex. So people tend to avoid getting drawn into a libel case. But in this case, it is McDonald's that are on the trial."

It would be fair to say that there is no love lost between the protagonists in this affair. During the proceedings, Richard Rampton QC frequently shakes his head, often accompanied by a glance of exasperationo towards the heavens. As the court adjourned for the Christmas break, there was not even the barest nod of recognition between the two sides.

The case has also been spiced up by allegations of skullduggery against McDonald's. Dave Morris and Helen Steel are claiming that McDonald's have reneged on an earlier promise to provide photocopies of the official transcripts. These have to be bought from a private company for 350 per day. In addition, Dave Morris and Helen Steel have issued a counterclaim against McDonald's for claiming that they spread lies about the corporation.

Funds for the defence are organised by the McLibel Support Campaign, the nerve centre of which is a short walk from the High Court. Every conceivable space in one room of Dan Mill's small housing association flat is dedicated to the McLibel Support Group. With fax machine, photocopier and PC, he is the very model of a modern environmental activist.

He is dug in for a long fight. Monthly bulletings detail the proceedings of the case; the details of witness cross examinations laid out with documentary precision. Indeed there is a certain relish for the fight against what they see as a corporate bully.

Whatever McDonald's corporate communications may say, it must be ruing the day it heard of Dave Morris and Helen Steel. "With no legal backing or resources, no one can deny that we've put up a magnificent fight in court," says Morris. As the case looks likely to continue until next summer, few would.

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