You and I against the McWorld

By John Vidal

The Guardian

March 9 1996

Dave Morris, a single father and former postman, has made breakfast for his son Charlie, got him to school, taken the bus and is now at Turnpike Lane Tube station in north London. It's 9.35 and there's work to do. He rifle through one of his two cheap holdalls to find a fax sent overnight by a journalist in Brazil. It's not that interesting, he says. He picks out photocopied pages from a book about deforestation in Costa Rica. He shuffles about in the morning chill. He waits for his colleague, looks up at the big wall clock. "She's late," he says as he thumbs through the photocopies, occasionally ticking them. "I really should be reading papers."

Helen Steel, a former gardener, now working in a West End bar two nights a week, arrives a few minutes later. The two greet each other briskly in the ticket hall, go straight down the escalator and onto the platform. They're friendly, warm, but businesslike; this is a meeting held almost on the run between people who know each other well. "Guess what," says Steel, as nonchalantly as you can in the fag-end of the morning rush-hour when the news you bear may materially affect not just your day ahead but the course of Britain's longest-ever-civil trial. "I got a fax from Mr Rampton. To my house." "Oooh, you are honoured," says Morris, as nonchalantly as is possible when a Tube train is arriving and you are preparing to cross-examine witnesses in less than an hour alongside one of Britain's top libel lawyers. If Morris had stopped to think about it, he'd probably have stayed in bed.

For 20 months he and Helen Steel have been defending themselves against eight charges of libel brought against them by the McDonald's corporation. McDonald's, which has a $26 billion-a-year turnover, is paying a legal team #6,500 a day. It is led by Richard Rampton QC, who is being paid #2,000 a day. Steel and Morris, the ultimate minnows, have no legal aid, no jury to appeal to, no money to buy transcripts of the day's arguments, no solicitors, no training.

And no seats on the Piccadilly line. They stand jammed up against the sides of the train.

Morris: "What did the fax say?"

The tube between Turnpike Lane and Holborn is the worst office in Britain. It has to do, says Morris, because they have no time to meet after court and they do not trust the telephone since McDonald's used private detectives to identify them back in the Eighties. The woman strap-hanging nest to Steel is reading a romantic novel and swaying alarmingly; two office workers are talking about relationships; there are copies of the Guardian and the Sun being folded haphazardly in people's faces. And every so often the whole office lurches to left and right, bodies falling over each other, people shoving past.

Morris: "I can't concentrate."
Steel: "We've been trying to get this paper for three years..."

They speed-read the fax together. It's 20 pages of memos from the US Agricultural Council sent to Cargill's, the world's largest seed company, and passed on to McDonald's in 1990. Until yesterday the original was in the briefcase of Mr Ray Cesca, McDonald's head of world trade. Cesca is in court and Steel says she managed to get him to admit that he had more information than the McDonald's team wanted to let out. Last night Rampton sent it over.

Steel: "What does this mean? Can you read this?"
Morris: "It's just standard world figures on meat production."
Steel: "There's a page missing."

By Finsbury Park station they know the information is useful. They say they should have had it years ago. Morris is furious. He's already been saying during the trial that McDonald's has manipulated the system.

Steel: "So, are you doing Soya first, Dave?"
Morris: "No, you go on first. I'm not ready."
Steel: "I discovered something very interesting last night. Something I want to ask Cesca about."
Morris: "Are you going to tell me?"
Steel: "No, wait"

By Russell Square, Dave is sighing deeply, pencilling through passages here and there. A Japanese tourist is leaning heavily towards Steel, his eyes three-quarters closed. They get out at Holborn.

Morris: "Sure you don't want to tell me about it?"
Steel (teasing): "No, I want it to be a surprise. Good to have surprises."
Morris: "It's a wet blanket."
Steel: "It's more of a sparkler than a stick of dynamite. I'm trying to raise the excitement level of this trial."

They dash for the Number 1 bus, talk about the tactics Morris will use that morning. Five minutes later, approaching the Royal Courts of Justice, Dave is fulminating at links between McDonald's and the military and Helen is building herself up into a fine old strop about the company's rubbish. "They make it and they talk it..."

Then, with a cheerful "Morning" to the security guards at the Courts of Justice in the Strand, Morris and Steel file past puffy-faced men carrying bundles of briefs and books to courts that will rule on bankruptcies and appeals. After climbing one set of stairs, they turn a dozen corners to reach court 35.

The room is panelled. The walls are lined with Weekly Law Reports and six-foot-high piles of transcripts of the proceedings of McDonald's versus Steel and Morris. It is the domain of Mr Justice Rodger Bell. Bell, recently promoted, is a natural patrician. This is his first libel case. He is evidently a kind man; he wants to help the underdog, but Morris and Steel - they would never say this to his face - feel he could try harder.

The question for Mr Justice Bell on Day 222 is this: Should McDonald's be made to give up lists of cattle ranches near Cubaya Mato Grosso do Sul where McDonald's "patties" (hamburgers) came from in the eighties? Ray Cesca, a gaunt middle-aged American who is witness number 103 out of an expected 180 in the trial, is giving evidence. Cesca is languid, at ease. Hands thrust deep in Armani trousers, he is telling Steel how his work involves "taking advantage" of the global economy. He is director of global purchasing and world trade for the corporation, and Cesca and McDonald's are doing dandy, he says.

And so they are. Since McDonald's was allegedly libelled in 1984, the company has more than doubled in size. Since the trial started in 1994 McDonald's has added 2,500 restaurants to it's world-wide chain of 18,000 in 89 countries. And, expanding at the rate of nine a day, it has added another two since Cesca arrived in the witness box this morning.

Steel tries to steer Cesca this way and that. He sways slightly backwards and the two verbally parry. There are considerable gaps between questions and answers. At one time there is a full three minutes silence, but it emerges that Cesca has misunderstood Steel's London accent, and doesn't realise that he has been asked a question. She wants to know precisely where these ranches are; he is evasive, repeats that he hasn't been to all of them.

Steel and Morris want the lists. With them, they think, they may be able to identify bits of the region that they contend were forested before McDonald's moved in. If any included Indian land, they might be able to draw in social issues. They believe they have the right of disclosure and that McDonald's has not been full and frank with the information it has deposited in the court. Mr Justice Bell is pragmatic, muses aloud about what use the defendant's would make of the information if they had it, how long it would take to get it and whether it's worth the cost. Morris is quietly furious. "We'll pay," he offers.

And then Mr Justice Bell drops a revealing pebble into the court waters:

Bell: "Excuse me. Can I just stop you a minute?"
(Cesca and Steel look up.)
Bell: "When Ms Steel asks questions there is a tendency with witnesses to speak back to's only natural (he smiles). Could you speak to the middle of the court?"

Mr Justice Bell leans back. The ripples touch each of the cast of McLibel characters in turn. First they reach Richard Rampton. Trained over years to be alert to a judge's every whim and nuance, this legal heavyweight - one of Britain's most experienced and reputedly wily libel barristers - has been fiddling with a ruler, rubbing his considerable jowls and appearing mighty bored. In an instant he is alive, flashing his appreciation of Mr Justice Bell's bon mot up at the bench. The ripples lap the flamboyant Patti Brindley-Codd, McDonald's senior solicitor. She wears much gold and braid, uses mobile telephones a lot, brings a whiff of SW1 to WC2 and today looks like the pilot more or less in control of a supertanker. She turns and smiles back at Sid Nicholson, McDonald's UK's florid-faced vice-president who sits, as usual, quietly. Today he's with a lean Chicago lawyer.

The defendants' side of the court is a world away, more Stoke Newington or Paddington. Morris adjusts his glasses and pulls at his reindeer-covered jumper with an expression of extreme distaste. Justin, from Nottingham, an assistant for the defence, has several earrings and a blond-dyed mohican cut. He keeps his head down and scribbles. A researcher leans back and whispers to no one in particular: "He's a right one, isn't he?" Helen Steel, in chinos and a jumper, waits impassively.

The ripples reach Cesca. The American is now wary and he watches Steel like a snake. He still addresses her directly, but now he looks frequently at Mr Justice Bell for approval. Steel fires off several quick questions but 10 minutes later she's bogged down. Mr Justice Bell leans forward paternally. This time he wants to play legal tutor: "Can I help you, Ms Steel?" Indeed he will. He is enjoying himself. He takes over the examination of Cesca.

This is the second February 22 that Court 35 has Been sitting, the second winter that snows have fallen in the Strand. The IRA has left London and returned to London since Steel and Morris started to defend themselves. The trial has become an epic battle, grinding on from issue to issue: from employment, advertising, food poisoning, nutrition and recycling, through animal cruelty and litter, to reach deforestation in Brazil, Guatemala and Costa Rica. The case centres on a "fact sheet" called What's Wrong With McDonald's which was distributed back in the Eighties, and which McDonald's alleges maligns the company on eight points. The trial has addressed child psychology and trade unions, the living conditions of pigs, the working conditions of teenagers and the properties of plastics, packaging and "pester" power. The end is now reckoned to be months, not years away, but still to come are dozens of eco-witnesses, the evidence of private eyes and a judge's ruling on 16 contentious points.

McLibel, says Auberon Waugh, is the best free entertainment in town. It has it's own logic, momentum, characters, pace, lore and references. It is alternately mind-bogglingly dull, riveting, bizarre, revelatory and surreal - as befits a case in which American corporatism, western materialism and the British Establishment are set against a new age and an alternative world represented by two anarchists ("anarchist in the fullest sense of the word," they say). Vast wealth is here daily pitted against poverty, northern perceptions crash against those of the south. The more serious the issues that the court addresses, the more absurdities surface.

After 20 months, the case seems to have bedded down into a never-ending, almost existential dialogue about trust, truth and the nature of subversion. In brief, Steel and Morris have maintained that McDonald's has used image and bribes to subvert a generation of eaters; McDonald's has argued back that the defendants are subverting the company's absolute right to sell what it likes to who it likes in the cause of profit. "It's almost as if there's an imaginary line straight down the middle of this court," says Mr Justice Bell rather perceptively.

On either side of the cultural divide there are other questions which the case raises, but this court may not address. Does English law work against "litigants in person"? Do not the libel laws need overhauling? Is it right that two unemployed defendants should get no legal aid whatever? How can a laid-off postman and a former gardener - ordinary people if ever there were any - be denied a jury on the grounds that the issues are too complex for ordinary people to understand, and yet conduct their own defence over almost two years? Should the plaintiffs be allowed to spend an estimated #10 million against defendants who have raised less than #40,000 and cannot afford access to the daily court transcripts?

But McDonald's has no truck with sentimental distinctions between justice for the rich and justice for the poor. For McDonald's the trial is about it's right to continue trading, it's right to stop people telling lies. "It's not political in any way," says Mike Love, the company's top PR man and former agent to Margaret Thatcher in North Finchley. "It's about the responsibility to tell the truth. It's about facts, about protecting reputation." He plays the sincere McDonald's constituency card. "We believe we have a trust placed in us. A lot of people trust McDonald's. The allegations challenge that trust. If we don't stand up, then it would be seen that there is some truth in the allegations," he says.

Compare that with Steel and Morris. "A whole way of thinking is on trial," says Steel. "We've turned the tables and put McDonald's on trial. We have no particular grudge against them. They stand for practices that take place every day in our society. We're standing for the alternatives." She, too, comes over all sincere: "When we criticise McJobs, we're standing up for workers everywhere. It's the same with nutrition. When we criticise junk food and make links between it and degenerative diseases, we're defending nutritionists and the promotion of healthy eating - the whole way that people eat."

She is direct: "McDonald's is a pathetic little company who have forced their way into society's consciousness because that's the system we've got...that's why I want a different sort of system, based on co-operation and sharing. It's lucky they only sell fucking hamburgers."

How McDonald's got itself into this courtroom will remain one of the legal mysteries of the decade and a lesson to every other multinational. Patently, one of the world's largest corporations has allowed the trial to go way beyond one allegedly offending pamphlet.

What's Wrong With McDonald's? was published by the London Greenpeace (LG) group in 1986. Not to be confused with Greenpeace International, LG was Europe's first Greenpeace group, set up in 1971. By the mid-Eighties it was the domain of "anarchists" or libertarian greens. After the miners' strike, says Paul Gravett, who was part of the group, it was a time of animal-liberation groups and rebellion.

"Green issues were important, but it wasn't just the environment. We wanted to distinguish ourselves from the other Greenpeace. We were the first to campaign against nuclear energy (with Friends of the Earth). We campaigned against pesticides, cadmium in toys, pollution, the Falklands war (both sides), arms trading. Sometimes our numbers swelled to 30, but mostly there were about 10 or 15 people at meetings. I was running the McDonald's campaign. Actually, we were thinking of dropping it to move on to something else."

No one, he says, can remember who wrote the original pamphlet. It features a leering cartoon American hiding behind a Ronald McDonald mask. It's propaganda whose points about health, nutrition and environment - drawn from such contentious bodies as the World Health Organisation - are now common currency.

The point is that Dave Morris and Helen Steel had little if anything to do with the original pamphlet. Neither can even remember handing it out. Morris was more involved in the poll tax; Steel kept more to IMF and World Bank issues. They and three others were identified as the "core members" of the group by private-detective infiltrators (four of whom have signed statements to the court). "Everyone knew there was at least one informant, but we thought that he was from the police. We weren't doing anything illegal, so we didn't worry; but the last thing we imagined was that McDonald's was spying on us," says Gravett.

The five named were shocked when the writs were served on September 21, 1990. They saw solicitors who told them there was no legal aid for libel. "The advice we had was all basically pessimistic. To fight a libel case you have to have money. We were told you can't really win without it," says Gravett.

He, Andrew Clarke and Jonathan O'Farrell went to court, apologised and undertook not to repeat the allegations. "I succumbed," says Gravett. "I was loathe to apologise; on the other hand I wanted to move on to other issues. It was the hardest decision I've ever made. Yes, I regret it now. I would love to have been in court with Helen and Dave." He muses every Eighties "anarchist's" muse: "To get a multinational to court, to dig up loads of dirt...But none of us thought even then that we'd get them into court. Our legal advice was that we wouldn't get them as far as the trial. Helen and Dave are remarkably determined."

Steel, now 30, Morris, 41, became friends in the early Eighties. Steel spent half her childhood in Lancashire, the rest in Surrey. She says she learned to fight as a child. "My mother always told me to stand up to bullies. When I was about eight, there was a boy at the end of the street who used to bully everybody. People used to go home and cry. Everybody did. Then mum said, 'Stand up to him, hit him back'. So I did - well, she says I did. And after that he didn't bother me again." She always wanted to work in farming, she says. Then she visited a slaughterhouse and went off the idea. By 16 she was a vegan and her beliefs had been formed. Like thousands and thousands of others, she became anti nuclear energy and pro animal liberation. She came to London, worked as a gardener: "It was good work."

Taking on McDonald's, she says, was a matter of instinct: "I didn't think much about it. These people were saying that I had to apologise when I had no desire whatever to apologise. They are the ones selling junk food, damaging the environment, so why should I apologise to them? No way...It's a gut thing."

Morris, London through and through, had been an Islington postman for six years. He had little education after the age of 17. He was a branch secretary of his union for a while and went to a trade union college after he left the Post Office. He stayed only a short time. "You can get more education from the real world than from college," he says.

The two met in a Haringey community-action group. "It was local people struggling for decent housing, supporting the miners, that sort of thing," says Steel. The friendship grew in the miners' strike. Morris was already a member of London Greenpeace. Helen joined later.

"Yes, we have arguments," says Steel. "It's intense, we're under pressure. We might argue about something. It's usually about stuff for the court. It's only natural with our different approaches. By and large we've learned to trust each other. It would be unnatural if we never argued. Arguments help us sort out things in our minds."

The mid-Eighties were tricky for McDonald's UK. The company was expanding massively but criticisms of "junk food" were also growing. The Third World and the influence of multinationals were on the political agenda and diet, environment and health were emerging as new social concerns. McDonald's was stamping out brush fires everywhere - in just a few years it forced apologies or retractions from the BBC, the Guardian and the Scottish TUC, effectively closed down the Transnational Information Centre, stopped the transmission of at least one Channel $ film, and silenced a play.

In December 1984, says Mike Love, the company wrote to London Greenpeace to complain. He says there was no reply. Steel and Morris say McDonald's never, to their knowledge, complained about the "fact sheet" and claim that the first they heard of it was when the writs were literally thrown at their feet in the street.

"Ten years ago our approach was not to go to court but to put the facts before audiences. It was only as a last resort that we went to court," says Love. "By 1990 it had got to the stage where the allegations were being repeated second- or third-hand. The contents of the leaflet have been reported in the media, in schools, and even a church magazine. ..These lies are affecting McDonald's staff, customers, suppliers and thousands of independent franchisees. There was no option but to stop the publication of the leaflet. We didn't want to go to court."

Morris objects "Oh yes they did," he says. "Their aim was first to ignore it, then to silence their critics. Legal action can be seen as part of the whole structure of marginalising and suppressing criticism."

Another view comes from Mark Stephens, senior partner in the large London law firm Stephens Innocent: "McDonald's thought they could draw the legal sword and everyone would bow down. It was big US business, the multinational culture, showing an appalling lack of understanding of individuals who hold strong beliefs and principles."

The US corporation expected to win the case cleanly and quickly, but there was an obvious danger that an unpredictable English jury might side with the underdogs. That was averted when a pre-trial court was persuaded to dispense with a jury, partly on the grounds that it would be easier for a judge working alone to assimilate the paperwork, partly because a jury might find some of the arguments too complex, and partly - what now must catch in the throat - because, it was argued, court time would be saved.

On December 21, 1993, Richard Rampton, McDonald's QC predicted that the trial would last three rather than four weeks with a judge alone presiding and "more likely six or seven with a jury. I am not trying to exaggerate..." Mr Justice Bell agreed and Steel and Morris failed in their appeal. They now maintain this was the unfairest of the legal decisions that the case has raised. And it may yet form the basis of an appeal to Europe if this case is lost.

Morris and Steel's legal baptism was hairy. "The legal system does not welcome litigants in person," says Steel. "The first time we went into court we asked a judge to explain the proceedings. When our turn to speak came, he basically said: 'If you don't know the procedure, you should be represented...' It was pretty close to saying, 'Get out of my court, you're wasting my time. ' We honestly didn't know what we could say or when to say it." They learned quickly, through 28 pre-trial hearings to interject.

Almost two years into the trial, says Mark Stephens (who has helped Steel and Morris with some of the finer legal points), they have more than acquitted themselves, indeed have more front-line legal experience than many barristers. "It's incredibly difficult to do what they are doing. It shows a level of commitment that before this case was unheard of. They're good. It's a Mutt and Jeff routine. Dave goes in like a bull in a china shop, head on. Helen is more subtle and intuitive, darting in, picking off the points. It's a good combination. Clearly they don't have the backroom book-learning, which is a vital legal ingredient. They would have been more effective with legal help. The legal points have ruled against them because they haven't argued as explicitly as a qualified lawyer would have done.

But they're being solicitors and barristers, they're doing two people's jobs. They are up against a team of solicitors from a big City firm. They're up against private detectives, two barristers including a leading QC, with all the backing of one of the world's most powerful companies. They have to identify the issues, they must collect the evidence and push the information in the courtroom. They have learnt immeasurable amounts. They've shaken top McDonald's executives brought over from the US. They've been effective, have got a number of admissions out of people, given people an unpleasant time."

McDonald's maintains doggedly that nothing that has come out of the case has surprised it. It says that Steel and Morris are responsible for the length of the trial and that more than 60 per cent of the court time is spent on their witnesses and evidence. It denies that the corporation has made a colossal PR blunder. "All the evidence has been laid out in witness statements. All the evidence given is what we have volunteered," says Love.

As in any libel trial, however, mud has been flung and some has stuck to both sides. McDonald's methods have been challenged. In one torrid week in the second October of the case, the company was portrayed by former workers as racist, anti-gay and anti-trade union, with paranoid managers competing to reduce staffing. It's own staff accused it of watering down milkshakes, ketchup, mustard, and syrups. It was accused of cutting corners of the cheese, ripping of customers, of having blocked drains and sewage in one kitchen.

McDonald's takes the public punches, grins and tries to ignore it.

One of Steel and Morris's coups was in asking Dr Sydney Arnott, McDonald's cancer expert, his opinion of this statement: "A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals is linked with cancer of the breast and bowel and heart disease." Arnott replied: "If it is being directed to the public, then I would say it is a very reasonable thing to say." He was then told it was an extract from the allegedly libellous "fact sheet", the section it came from being, in the words of McDonald's lawyer, the "most defamatory" and, if proven, the "kiss of death" to a company like McDonald's.

At other times the firms executives have been made to look stupid. "If a million people (the number going to UK stores per day at the time) go into McDonald's, I would not expect more than 150 items of packaging to end up as litter", said Paul Preston, McDonald's UK president. Or crazed: "If we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for 1,000 years we will become taller, our skin will become white and our hair blonde" - the Japanese president of McDonald's quoted in trial from the authorised biography of McDonald's. And ignorant: "I can see the dumping of waste to be a benefit. Otherwise you will end up with lots of vast empty gravel pits all over the country" - Edward Oakley, McDonald's UK senior VP.

"It's been revelatory in terms of corporate culture," says Morris. "They've been forced to reveal that Ronald McDonald is nothing nut a marketing tool, to admit that 'nutritious' for them means only that food 'contains nutrients'."

The strain of the battle is telling on the defendants. Steel now works weekends in a West End bar to earn enough to live on - and also to get away from the case. Morris can work on the case only when his son has gone to bed. The previous night, he says, he fed his son veggie burger and salad in pitta bread. Then they had fruit. Then they both were worn out.

Steel: "We're sick of it. Sick of the stress. Not having a life outside..."
Morris: "We're continually conscious of thousands of things we should be doing..."
Steel: "I get fed up having to listen to their corporate propaganda and waffle. I dream of them. I dreamt of Rampton last night. It's worse than a job, this. You can't get away."
Morris: "It's not so much David and Goliath as Prometheus. I feel chained to this rock that's trying to crush me. It has it's moments. Like when you force them to admit something."
Steel: "The whole thing is stupid. We have to spend days in court arguing whether we can say that McDonald's pays low wages. Basically, the law seems to be there to protect business as usual."

McDonald's, meanwhile, tries to limit the damage and keeps jabbing away in the legal battle, trusting that the final judgements, what it thinks of as an infinitely greater prize, will go it's way. "We feel that the case is overwhelmingly in our favour," says Love. "We're looking at the long term...When the judge has ruled we can enter the debate." The rulings are now everything. With them, McDonald's thinks it will have a powerful weapon against anyone who ever says a word against it. Mark Stephens disagrees: "McLibel is a flea bite which has turned into pustulating boils all over the corporate body. It can only get worse for them. I cannot conceive of a situation where Helen and Dave will lose in the public perception. People will say big business has trampled over two individuals exercising the right of free speech. Even Saatchis couldn't get McDonald's out of this one. They are in a no-one situation."

And just as the company thinks the end may be in sight and it's #10 million investment to repel it's Eighties critics may pay off, so a new Nineties anarchism is surfacing. Leaflets criticising the company are circulating in ever greater numbers and now, perhaps most damagingly, a group of Steel and Morris supporters has set up a McDonald's Web site in the Internet.

There, for anyone who cares to log on, is "McSpotlight": 25 megabytes, 1,300 files, millions upon millions of critical words, clips of the films that McDonald's thought it had suppressed, extracts of the banned play, every malicious cartoon and article that has ever appeared, all the information supposedly taken out of circulation by previous trials. Every testimony against the company, every revelation, every blunder and admission has turned up on international "mirror" sites so they cannot be wiped. It's the ultimate anti-McDonald's experience. In 14 languages. And top of the list is the What's Wrong With McDonald's? pamphlet.

It's McHell. In the first week it was accessed 174,000 times.

"We are investigating," says Love.

But will McDonald's go back to the courts?

No comment.

And would Steel and Morris, if it all went against them, take the whole damn shooting match to the European courts to seek justice?

No comment.

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