THEY TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ANIMALS, CHILDREN AND THEIR WORKFORCE...but they still won a libel victory over protesters

By Patricia Wynn Davies Legal Affairs Editor
The Independent (UK); 20th Jun 1997
The mighty McDonald's Corporation has emerged with only a partial victory from its epic libel battle against green campaigners Dave Morris and Helen Steel.

Closing the longest trial in English legal history, Mr Justice Bell awarded the fast-food giant #60,000 damages after ruling that the company had been libelled by many of the allegations in the now notorious "What's Wrong With McDonald's" factsheet first published by London Greenpeace in the late Eighties.

But the corporation was equally viewed as having secured a hollow victory and to have made, in hindsight, a miscalculation in bringing the case at all.

Mr Morris, 43, and Ms Steel, 31, who had to conduct their case themselves, succeeded in showing that the leaflet was true when it accused McDonald's of paying low wages, being responsible for cruelty to some animals and exploiting children in its advertising.

Quite apart from the fact that the so-called "McLibel Two" cannot afford to pay the damages awarded, even if they were willing to do so, the counter-victories and the fact that the High Court judge granted no injunction yesterday have put paid to any hope the company might have had that campaigning against its products, practices and corporate philosophy might cease.

Speaking to rapturous applause at a press conference after the ruling, Mr Morris, a former postman, and Ms Steel, a former gardener, claimed that they were the real victors. Ms Steel said: "McDonald's brought the case to stop the campaign. The campaign is continuing."

Charles Secrett, director of the campaign group Friends of the Earth and an expert defence witness at the trial, praised the couple's persistence in "standing up to what we view as a bully boy multi-national".

Immediately after the judgment, Mr Morris, Ms Steel and members of the McLibel Support Campaign began handing out leaflets to crowds gathered outside the law courts in London. Within a couple of hours details of the ruling appeared on the McSpotlight Internet site, which has already been accessed more than 13 million times. The judge has made no order for costs, which are estimated to have reached 10m.

Paul Preston, chairman and chief executive officer of McDonald's Restaurants, said: "We are, as you can imagine, broadly satisfied with the judgment. There are aspects of the judgment which we will have to review and we will do so when we have been able to study the full ruling in detail."

Mr Justice Bell took more than two hours to read out a 45-page summary of his three-volume judgment to a packed court. He said that the factsheet accused McDonald's 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 recycled paper; exploiting children with its advertising and marketing; cruelty to animals; and treating its employees badly.

The judge said it was not true on the evidence that the corporation was guilty of the first four allegations, although some of McDonald's promotional material that the food had a positive nutritional benefit "did not match" the reality of a product that was high in saturated fat and salt.

But he upheld Mr Morris and Ms Steel's claim that the company's advertising and marketing exploited children by using them, as more susceptible subjects of advertising, to pressurise their parents into going to McDonald's. Mr Morris and Ms Steel had also proved that McDonald's was "culpably responsible" for the cruel practices of restricting the movement of laying hens, broiler chickens and some pigs and of slitting the throats of some chickens while they were still fully conscious.

On employment practices, the judge said McDonald's Restaurants Ltd (UK), the second plaintiff and the corporation's British operator, paid its workers low wages "thereby helping to depress wages for workers in the catering trade", as the leaflet had alleged. But an allegation that the company was only interested in cheap labour was untrue, as was the suggestion that it exploited disadvantaged groups, particularly women and black people.

Mr Morris and Ms Steel had counterclaimed for libel against McDonald's, who issued leaflets and press releases attacking the two defendants in the run-up to the beginning of the trial in 1994. The judge ruled that the McDonald's documents were defamatory because they wrongly claimed Morris and Steel published the factsheet knowing it to be untrue. McDonald's, however, had a defence of qualified privilege.

Legal controversy is set to continue. Mr Morris and Ms Steel now plan to sue former McDonald's inquiry agents who infiltrated London Greenpeace (no relation to the worldwide Greenpeace environmental organisation) and to take the corporation to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over what Mr Morris said was Britain's "oppressive" libel system which had denied them legal aid and a jury during the 314-day trial.

    Burger firm wins, but at huge cost

    McDonald's could have spent the 10m it spent on the trial on other things ...
    5,524,862 Big Macs in the UK (18,181,818 in the US).
    20,408,163 Cokes.
    An extra 1,496 staff, on 3.05 an hour, could have been employed for the entire period of the trial.
    Nearly 4000 extra on each of the 2504 new McDonald's (three an hour) which have sprung up around the world during the 313 days of the trial.

Tom Hampson.

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