Standing up for what he believes

The Scottish Herald
Monday, February 24, 1997

Ian Sutherland talks to Dave Morris - the man at the centre of the 'McLibel trial' - one of the longest in British legal history

Press Index

BETWEEN June 1994, and December 1996, in a Lon don court David slugged it out with Goliath. To be more precise Dave Morris an ex-postie, and Helen Steel, a part-time pub worker, traded legal arguments with top-flight lawyers representing the McDonald's Corporation of America and its UK subsidiary. Dave Morris - an unemployed lone parent facing e risk of damages and costs estimated at 10m - had little doubt about the "real" nature what has become one of the longest trials in UK history.

A judge has retired to consider his verdict. Either Dave Morris and Helen Steel will have grossly defamed a pertly innocent company going about its normal and lawful business - producing, worldwide, $30bn worth of fast food in 104 countries - or they will, their terms, have triumphantly exposed a multinational monster which symbolises "colonialism" healthy diets, and exploitation of children and families. During a short speaking tour of Scotland this week Morris was forthright and repentant about his back for London Greenpeace - a small but long-standing group rich, McDonald's alleges produced and distributed in 1989/90, the now notorious What's Wrong With McDonald's factsheet damning the company. He believes sincerely that he and Ms Steel lose in strictly legal terms, they will nevertheless have won a political war.

Morris is convinced that the McLibel proceedings represent "the first time the inner workings of a multi-national corporation have been exposed to public scrutiny". While, with equal apparent conviction, his foe claims it behaves little differently from other "mainstream" large commercial concern in the late-twentieth century contributing genuine regard for environmental issues and paying staff the "going rate" - Morris holds that "two worlds" have been publicly in collision. Whatever the formal verdict - expected by summer 1997 - he feels the echoes of the case will reverberate into the third millennium. "We forced McDonald's to hand over previously confidential documents," says Morris. "By producing in our defence ex-McDonald's workers from 12 countries, we revealed global exploitation. And we believe we showed that multi-nationals' claims to respect the environment are just so-called 'greenwash'."

Morris also states unequivocally that he is an anarchist. But he regards the multinationals as the effective "revolutionaries". A man who thinks before he speaks, he treasures the apparent irony of describing himself as "old-fashioned on the issues that matter". In his view. he and Ms Steel are effectively irrelevant as individuals. Hundreds of thousands of "anti-McDonald's" leaflets have been distributed in the UK - before, during, and since the "McLibel" case began. Thousands of people could have been pursued by the angry company. It happened to be Morris and Steel.

Morris says he grew up in a traditional London family taught to care deeply about the welfare and education of children. In that sense, this stormy petrel of radical dissent regards himself as profoundly conservative - as dedicated as, for example, the present Government in his commitment to "family values". He says it is massively irresponsible to profit from selling hamburgers to children who demand such products via so-called "pester power", created by advertising he regards as "propaganda". During the "McLibel" hearing, McDonald's did not dispute the term "junk food". Effectively McDonald's stated it sold "an experience". It simply wasn't in the "food" business in the full sense of the term.

GEORGE Orwell opined that the best revolutionaries are outraged conservatives. Morris could fit that bill. He denounces his opponent as "Stalinist". He admires US law - under which McDonald's would never have made it into court. In extremis, he could be a very traditional parent who wants children to "eat up their greens". In common with other traditionalists, he could be interpreted as believing that bad habits formed in childhood will negatively affect adulthood. Prima facie, his message seems to accord with that of official health authorities, who daily attempt to dissuade people from consuming products high in fats and salt. Morris says he came to court via intensely "local" issues traffic, schools, housing. Come summer, regardless of whether he and Ms Steel are judged guilty of defamation or become victorious "village Hampdens" and 'giant killers" - Morris says he'll return to his north London, backyard. one more concerned parent serving on a PTA. But he won't forget global issues. "My parents always said I'd grow out of it, but I'm actually growing into it."

Morris supported the miners' strike of 1984/85 organised claimants' unions in deprived areas, and campaigned against the poll tax. On those fronts, sections of traditionalist thought marched with determined revolutionaries. As pit closures hit in the 1990s, "Tory ladies' from Kensington carried the banner with Arthur Scargill. Both strands say. themselves as highlighting "traditional values". Morris understands that.

"There are good traditions and bad ones. I'm revolutionary in terms of the things that really need to be changed. But civil society" is in conflict with those ' in power. I don't think human society can co-exist with multi- ! national corporations. The world's decision-making should l be localised. And in practical terms. I don't like bullies and that is what made me fight this case. The bigger the bully. the more important it is to stand up to them."

Perhaps inevitably. there is ' going to be a book on the "McLibel" trial. Apparently. there's a delay on that. though. Its publishers are hav ing it very carefully checked for libel. And Dave Morris allows himself a wry grin at the irony of that, too.

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