The Herald (UK); 20th June 1997

A sweet and sour victory

McLibel, the High Court's David and Goliath battle between two eco warriors and the might of McDonald's, ended yesterday with the fast food giant winning 60,000 damages.

However, "David" - penniless green activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris - claimed they were the real victors of the 314-day trial spread over nearly three years.

Mr Justice Bell ruled at the end of the longest trial in British legal history that the company had been libelled by most of the allegations in a leaflet, "What's Wrong With McDonald's?", published in the late 1980s and still in circulation.

The judge found the leaflet was truthful when it accused McDonald's of paying low wages to employees, being responsible for cruelty to some animals used in its food, and exploiting children in advertising campaigns.

McDonald's is estimated to have spent 10m in legal costs suing former postman Mr Morris, 43, and former gardener Ms Steel, 31, over a long-running campaign by environmentalists who accused it of poisoning its customers, exploiting third world countries, and employing cheap labour.

Because legal aid is not available for fighting libel cases, the pair mounted their own defence in a case which has already been described by Mr Michael Mansfield QC as "the trial of the century".

McDonald's has acknowledged that it will never be able to claim its costs or damages from the "unwaged" pair whose lives for the last three years have been taken up studying law and preparing for each day's hearing.

In an act of defiance after the court ruling yesterday they were handing out the ame pamphlet outside the law courts. Mr Morris said they had lost the case on a "technicality" and vowed to take their fight to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge Britain's "oppressive" libel laws.

Friends of the Earth and top campaigning barrister Mr Mansfield threw their weight behind the two defendants. Chairing a news conference, Mr Mansfield said: "The British public owe a debt of gratitude to these two people. They have dared to tread where no others have dared to tread, where those with resources have not dared to go, to raise issues that matter to us all."

The judge had said McDonald's was entitled to compensation for damage to its trading reputation and goodwill, and to vindicate its good name.

However, Mr Justice Bell did not grant an injunction forbidding further publication of the leaflet.

Mr Paul Preston, chairman and chief executive officer of McDonald's Restaurants Ltd (UK), said the company is "broadly satisfied with the judgment". He said: "For the sake of our employees and our customers we wanted to show these serious allegations to be false and I am pleased that we have done so."

In his judgment, which has taken six months to prepare and runs to 800 pages, Mr Justice Bell said: "Not everyone loves McDonald's."

The leaflet was at the heart of an anti-McDonald's campaign run by London Greenpeace - which has no connection with Greenpeace International.

The leaflet accused the burger chain of:

  • Being responsible for starvation in the Third World.
  • Destroying vast areas of central American rainforest.
  • Serving unhealthy food that caused a real risk of cancer of the breast and bowel, heart disease, and food poisoning.
  • Lying when it claimed to use re-cycled paper.
  • Exploiting children with its advertising and marketing.
  • Cruelty to animals.
  • Treating employees badly.

The judge said that McDonald's Corporation of the US and its UK operation, McDonald's Restaurants, saw the leaflet as part of a campaign to destroy their businesses and "smash" them regardless of the truth.

He found on the evidence that it was not true that McDonald's was responsible for destroying rainforests with poisons to provide cattle grazing and timber for its paper packaging - thus contributing to an ecological catastrophe.

He said: "Where the growing and spreading hamburger industry, of which McDonald's is such a powerful part, goes from here, may be a matter of some concern in a number of areas. But in my own judgment McDonald's alleged part in an alleged world-wide hamburger connection does not justify the defamatory allegations actually made in the leaflet complained of, so far as starvation in the Third World and destruction of rainforest are concerned."

Mr Justice Bell said there was some evidence that McDonald's publicity in 1990 was misleading about the recycled content of some of its packaging in the UK, but this did not justify the charge of lying.

On the health aspect of McDonald's food, he said the leaflet said it was high in fat, sugar, animal products, and salt and low in fibre, vitamins, and minerals.

The risk of heart disease, he said, was only true in relation to customers who ate at McDonald's outlets several times a week over a period of years. The risk of bowel cancer might be increased to some extent, but there was no evidence in relation to breast cancer. But he said that some of McDonald's promotional material claiming the food had a positive nutritional benefit "did not match" the reality.

The judge upheld Morris's and Steel's claim that McDonald's advertising and marketing "makes considerable use of susceptible young children to bring in custom, both their own and that of their parents who must accompany them".

The complaint that McDonald's promoted the consumption of their meals as a fun event when they knew the contents could poison the children was not justified. But it was shown that laying hens, broiler chickens, and some pigs were treated cruelly by being given little room to move, at least for part of their lives.

He said McDonald's was "culpably responsible" for the "cruel practice" under which a small proportion of the millions of chickens slaughtered were fully conscious when their throats were slit.

He said the risk of food poisoning from eating McDonald's products was minimal.

The judge said McDonald's Restaurants paid workers low wages, thereby helping to depress wages in Britain's catering trade. But it was not true the company was only interested in cheap labour and that it exploited disadvantaged groups. It was true sometimes crew members were sent home early and not paid for the remainder of the shift.

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