Libel case pits McDonald's against unemployed vegetarians

Dick Polman

The Dallas Morning News, July 31, 1994

The courtroom doors swung open. In came the McLibel Two, and once again, they were flouting the dress code.

Helen Steel, unemployed anarchist, was sporting a purple T-shirt, casual slacks and the kind of sneakers that you'd buy for nine bucks in a remainder bin. Dave Morris, unemployed anarchist, had forgotten to bring a belt for his pants, and he wore sandals fit for a poetry reading.

Across the room, working for the McDonald's corporation, were the suits.

Gray suits, green suits, tan suits. Well-barbered hair and cellular phones. A phalanx of guys who spoke the language of a corporate juggernaut, using words and phrases like "prioritization" and "total life-cycle impact overview." They were all here to clear the name of Ronald McDonald, and that meant suing those two sharp-tongued, veggie-loving dissidents.

In an unusual libel trial, McDonald's, a $ 24 billion-a-year corporation with 14,000 restaurants spread across 70 countries, is suing a pair of Londoners who, five years ago, endorsed a local leaflet that sullied the golden arches with these words:

McDollars, McGreedy, McCancer, McMurder, McDisease, McProfits, McDeadly, McHunger, McRipoff, McTorture, McWasteful, McGarbage.

To the lawyer for McDonald's, such words, and the accompanying text, are "false in every material point," and the company is prepared to spend more than $ 1.5 million to prove it in court. In the trial's opening sessions last week, the company put its chief United Kingdom executive on the stand and summoned several top officials from the United States.

The lawyer, Richard Rampton, says the aim is to "stop the rot and stem the flow of poison" that was triggered by the offending leaflet. It was written in the mid-1980s by a small populist London group opposed to multinational corporations. The false charges, says Mr. Rampton, interfere with the company's "uniformity of excellence."

But Mr. Morris, a single father living on welfare since he lost his post office job, contends: "They want to suppress criticism.

This case is absolutely staggering. They're trying to get an official seal of approval that they can use worldwide, like The legal system says we're kind to children, good for your health, and nice to the environment.' So they pick out two unemployed people who don't have any personal resources." No middle road'

Actually, Mr. Morris is not the only one asking these questions:

Why is the company bothering to sue? Why fire a cannonball at a bumblebee and risk making the insect a martyr? Why publicize charges that would have never reached a mass audience in the first place? Why risk looking like a bully?

"The libel action is very much a last resort for us," said McDonald's spokesman Eddie Bensilum. "The leaflet has been distributed all over the world. Either we allowed it to be published and distributed, and it would gain currency and people would assume it to be true, or we took the libel action. There was no middle road."

But Michael Skrein, a libel lawyer who advised Ms. Steel and Mr. Morris several months ago, said: "The big question any company has to ask itself is, Is this going to help my reputation?' One of the great dangers in libel cases is that people don't necessarily follow them closely and don't necessarily pick up on the result. . . . The effect of that can damage the company's reputation even where (it) wins."

McDonald's is a company that has always been devoted to its clean image. It was Paul Preston, chief executive of McDonald's U.K., who recently recounted how founding father Ray Kroc would go around picking up litter.

Attorney Rampton, meanwhile, has already admitted that, even in victory, McDonald's won't win a pence from the McLibel Two. They're broke. Under British law, impoverished libel defendants are not entitled to legal aid, so, over the next several months, they must defend themselves.

"There's no room to move around in the house," Ms. Steel said wearily the other morning. "Documents are everywhere. And I've had to give up secretarial school to come to court every day. Dave's got a 5-year-old kid, and he's missing out spending family time."

Mr. Morris told the judge that he was "exhausted" trying to keep up with the Big Mac legal team. He and Ms. Steel don't get much sympathy from the other side.

"It is all very well," Mr. Rampton said, "that the defendants say they don't have the time to prepare. . . . (They) may have themselves to blame for the position they find themselves in."

Meaty argument

"What the leaflet does," Mr. Rampton said, "is accuse McDonald's of wrecking the planet for the sake of a fast buck."

The leaflet is a political call to arms for vegetarians to do battle against those who eat meat or profit from it.

"Hamburgers," it declares, "are part of a giant con that people would avoid if they knew what to do." People need to be "taking control of their lives to create a better society, instead of leaving their futures in the cynical, greedy hands of corporations like McDonald's."

The leaflet alleges that McDonald's eats up 800 square miles of timberland "to keep them supplied with paper for one year;" that "they are forcing the tribal peoples in the rain forests off their ancestral territories;" that "nearly all of McDonald's advertising is aimed at children," and that the average McMeal "is linked with cancers of the breast and bowel and heart disease."

The company's United Kingdom division hired private detectives to track down its authors and distributors. A number of people, including Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel, were identified. They were warned to stop. All of them, except Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel, backed down - not because they were guilty of anything, says Mr. Morris, but because they feared the firm's power.

Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel deny authorship of the leaflet, but Ms. Steel says: "We do believe it is true, and we feel that we have nothing to apologize for. Therefore, we have no choice but to fight this action." A few donors have come forward - Linda McCartney, vegetarian wife of rock star Paul McCartney, gave them $ 1,500 - but not enough to neutralize the clout of McDonald's.

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