McDonald's suffers from court grilling

Jackie Kemp

Scotland on Sunday, June 25, 1995

THEY turn everything upside down," says Dave Morris, sauntering home through north London from court 35 at the Royal Courts of Justice in London's Strand. The case, the longest libel trial in British legal history, will have been running for one year by Wednesday.

Morris continues: "We might have said that McDonald's creates lots of polystyrene rubbish which is environmentally wasteful but then they will say something like McDonald's waste is environmentally useful because it is filling up empty holes in the ground."

He is half of the McLibel Two, environmental martyrs taken to court by the American multinational burger chain which by now almost certainly regrets its heavy-handed tactics.

It all began in the mid-1980s when London Green Peace started producing leaflets criticising McDonald's, which was rapidly expanding its fast-food business in Britain. London Green Peace is not the same as Greenpeace International. It looks beyond purely environmental issues to tackle wider targets; international capitalism for example.

Morris, inveterate ringleader and veteran protester since the 1970s, is a vegetarian single parent who has long been associated with the group and the fight against McDonald's, to them a prime symbol of aggressive capitalism.

"It was the way they made themselves out to be benefactors of humanity that really annoyed us," says Morris.

That annoyance resulted in a four-page fact sheet available on request and divided up with headings such as McDeath and McDestruction.

The text was a general attack on junk food, claiming rather uncontroversially that it was high in fat and sodium, low in vitamins and minerals and therefore linked to heart disease and other illnesses.

It also attacked conditions in the catering industry and the economics of the meat industry.

An abridged leaflet was given away outside various branches of McDonald's, and then London Green Peace christened its annual festival the "Anti McDonald's Fayre." By the third fayre McDonald's had sent infiltrators to join in the day-long workshops held on non-violent direct action, and the films featuring the claimed destruction of the rainforest for cattle raising.

They collected all the duplicated leaflets and handouts on display, went to other meetings of London Green Peace and took copious notes of what was said.

These documents form part of the vast mountain of papers lining the walls of court 35 where the libel case is slipping into a seemingly permanent daily grind of wearying banality reminiscent of Jarndyce & Jarndyce in Dickens's Bleak House.

Writs were served on five people in 1990. Three backed down. Morris and his co-defendant Helen Steel did not.

They were determined to defend themselves against the allegation of libel and on the eve of the case when McDonald's published 30,000 copies of its own leaflet accusing Steel and Morris indirectly of lying, they launched a counter claim for libel.

On June 28, 1994 the case began in earnest after McDonald's had been granted an application to do without a jury on the grounds the case would be too complicated for ordinary people to understand. Lawyers for McDonald's confidently estimated the case would run for a maximum of four weeks, but they had underestimated Morris and Steel, who are conducting their own case after an initial two hours of free advice under the legal aid scheme. The two are extremely intelligent and committed political activists who prepared the ground well for their day in court. That day has now stretched to a year and it could go on until January.

Every allegation in the leaflet, most very generalised, has been defended. Conditions in the catering industry are bad, they said, and they have sought to show that by calling dozens of witnesses.

For McDonald's it has turned into a public relations disaster as the company is viewed as a bullying multinational trying to use a sledgehammer to crack two tiny environmental nuts.

Earlier this month, McDonald's refused to agree to a temporary adjournment so that Morris could look after his young son Charlie, who had broken a leg.

Morris and Steel, win or lose on the charges, already see the case as a victory since it has made headlines all over the world.

Steel herself has never been in McDonald's. Morris says he used to like the milk shakes, "but that was before I found out there were 12 spoonfuls of sugar in each one".

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