MCDONALD'S fast food chain was described as the Robert Maxwell of companies in the High Court yesterday for its use of libel writs to bully and silence critics while hiding distasteful business practices.
The accusation came from Helen Steel, one of two unemployed environmentalists who is alleged to have libelled McDonald's in a cheaply printed leaflet handed out on London streets.
"We believe McDonald's is the Robert Maxwell of corporations because it throws writs at anyone no matter how small," said Ms Steel who with co-defendant Dave Morris is representing herself. They say they cannot afford lawyers, and legal aid is not available in libel cases.
"After Maxwell's death, it was shown that his critics were right all along. We intend to show that the public face of McDonald's is a fraud, and that the truth that lies behind their image is far from savoury," Ms Steel said.
The leaflet, What's wrong with McDonald's? - Everything they don't want you to know, depicts a fat, ugly businessman in a cowboy hat half concealed by a Ronald McDonald mask.
It claims fatty McDonald's-style food is linked to cancer and heart disease and it accuses the company of exploiting the environment and its employees to boost profits.
McDonald's says the accusations are malicious falsehoods and it needs to win the action to protect its reputation.
Ms Steel said neither she nor Mr Morris were the author or publisher of the leaflet, which was produced by London Greenpeace, an organisation which has no connection with Greenpeace International. But she believed its contents to be true. "There is enough that is bad about McDonald's without having to invent false allegations," she told Mr Justice Bell.
Ms Steel and Mr Morris are now counter-suing McDonald's for libel in an attempt to force the company to disclose key documents which they claim it is withholding.
"McDonald's hoped that our lack of legal experience will give them an easy victory and satisfy a court that they are squeaky clean," Ms Steel said.
At an earlier hearing McDonald's succeeded in denying Ms Steel and Mr Morris the usual jury trial in libel proceedings on the grounds that the subject matter was scientifically too complex. "A jury might well have taken the view that McDonald's is a bullying multinational and that this case should never have been brought," Ms Steel said.
McDonald's issued writs against Ms Steel and Mr Morris, dubbed the McLibel Two, in September 1990 and the case is expected to last three months and cost more than £1 million.
Mr Morris said McDonald's used its lawyers and financial muscle to create a "climate of intimidation" to stifle criticism. "The press say: 'We can't touch McDonald's with a barge pole because we have all been sued'," he said.
Richard Rampton QC, for McDonald's, was overruled in an attempt to block the presentation of video evidence from a Channel 4 programme linking McDonald's with the use of beef from Costa Rica.
The company's claim that it did not use beef from rainforest countries was an "out-and-out lie", Ms Steel said. She said evidence would show that McDonald's in Britain had also imported beef from Brazil.
McDonald's objects to claims in the leaflet that its packaging is environmentally wasteful. But evidence would show that in 1989 when the leaflet was published McDonald's packaging had only a 7 per cent recycled content, she said.
She also produced evidence of three US state attorney-generals demanding that McDonald's drop descriptions of its food as nutritious because this misled customers.
The hearing continues.