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11/04/02 . Website . BBC . UK  
BBC McLibel Interview and Fast Food: A Chronology  
Following the BBC food programme 'Food Junkies' aired on BBC2 on 10th April 2002, the following items appeared on the BBC website:

1. McLibel: Interview with Dave Morris
2. Fast Food: a chronology

1. McLibel: Interview with Dave Morris

We interview one of the activists who challenged McDonald's and fought the longest libel case in British history.

[McSpotlight note: It is shame that the website didn't include the interview with Helen Steel, as the programme 'Food Junkies' had featured both the defendants. The website version (below) is heavily edited from the original interview. It is significant that all the interview references to the victorious McLibel campaign of mass defiance by campaigners, and to the wider political implications, were cut from the broadcast.]

Dave Morris was involved in the longest libel case in English legal history against the fast food chain McDonald's. McDonald's brought the case saying that Dave Morris and Helen Steel had handed out a libelous London Greenpeace* campaign leaflet entitled "What's Wrong with McDonald's". The leaflet accused McDonald's of exploiting its workers, damaging the environment and giving its customers food that led to heart disease. After the 314-day libel trial the court ruled that the burger chain had been libeled by some but not all the allegations.

Describe a little bit about your life before McLibel

Before McLibel, I was working as a postman in north London. I'm now a single dad with a 12 year old son, he was just a baby back then.

How did you first get involved with the McDonald's campaign?

I got involved with London Greenpeace in the early 1980s. But my first contact with McDonald's was as postman - back in the 1970s. The thing I noticed about McDonald's then was that workers dressed in uniform, they had name tags and were compelled to smile - at the time that was shocking to a trade union activist like me. What attracted me about the campaign was these workers, rather than the other important concerns for the environment, nutrition etc.

What did McDonald's specifically object to in the leaflet?

McDonald's spend a fortune manufacturing an image of themselves in order to get people to buy mediocre products. McDonald's don't want the public to be able to consider an alternative point of view where the reality of the fast food industry is laid bare, which is what grass roots activists were doing. For us the legal case was only a small part of a wider educational campaign going on in local high streets around the country and the world.

What was your reaction when you found out that McDonald's was trying to infiltrate London Greenpeace with spies?

McDonald's hiring seven spies to infiltrate an environmental group over 18 months is a scandal and disgusts me even now. At the time, I remember that Helen and a couple of other people were concerned that there might be spies in the group and I thought that they were being completely paranoid. And so I didn't take any notice of it but they turned out to be absolutely right. We had a battle all through 28 pre-trial hearings to force McDonald's to disclose relevant documents about their business practices, that included the activities of spies. Many of the most revealing and shocking documents were being finally handed over as the trial progressed.

How did it feel when you were served the writ?

I was staggered that a company as huge as McDonald's would take legal action to try to stop people handing out leaflets. It became obvious that we had to fight the case as a matter of principle, not just to bring out the truth about McDonald's and the food industry but to expose and challenge unfair laws.

Were you daunted by what was in front of you?

I was reluctant at first because of personal responsibilities, but the case became more and more dominating over our lives - and at same time we were spurred on by the successes we were having in our research and the mounting support campaign.

Overall, I think it's vital to stand up for what you believe in, because the cost of not doing so is much greater than getting down and doing it. All over this country and the world, ordinary people are making extraordinary efforts to support and defend their communities, trying to make society better. In many countries people face jail and assassination but continue to organise and stand up to powerful institutions.

The campaign/case lasted six years what were the practical implications?

Basically when we started we had to do practically everything ourselves, there was no legal aid. But support from all kinds of people made it possible for us to fight the case and counter the millions being spent by McDonald's. For example many people offered to be expert witnesses, helped with research, sent in donations, and my neighbours helped with childcare.

At any point did you feel that you'd give up?

The hardest time was right at the beginning when we realised that we were faced with a legal system entirely stacked in favour of rich and powerful claimants like McDonald's. But once we'd decided to fight it, it was like a war and I knew it was going to be long and tough - Helen and I both want to change the world and know this will only happen if people stand up for their rights.

Why was it important to fight this case?

This case was really fought out in the court of public opinion and people realised that wasn't really about the law - it was a battle of ideas in which we were promoting the public interest, and McDonald's were defending corporate power and capitalism.

What was your reaction to the verdict?

I was delighted with the damning verdict against McDonald's - it identified that McDonald's exploit children with advertising, pay low wages and are responsible for some animal cruelty towards some of the animals used in its food products [note: this is a lawyer's version of what Dave actually said]. Furthermore, McDonald's attempts to silence critics had stimulated a large support and defiance campaign and therefore only resulted in more protests and publicity reaching millions all over world.

What were the world wide implications of the trial?

The reputation of McDonald's and the food industry is plummeting, as more and more people realise what is happening behind smartly packaged goods and advertising. We are pleased that the anti-McDonald's campaign has contributed to the growth of a global anti-capitalist movement.

What was the impact overall on your life of McLibel?

In one way McDonald's dominated my life for about five years, I had to eat, sleep and breathe McDonald's and it was exhausting. But at the same time it was great to be able to challenge their very powerful presence in the world.

* London Greenpeace is not affiliated with the international organisation Greenpeace.

2. Fast Food: a chronology

[McSpotlight Note: Featuring London Greenpeace and McLibel]

  • 1904 - Hamburger pioneered at concessionaire stalls at the 1904 St Louis World Fair.

  • 1943 - Wimpy - named after the burger-scoffing character in Popeye - was the brand leader. Big Boys Chain credited with the double burger and the drive-thru.

  • 1940s - Public information film featuring Tommy Trinder released in UK, encourages idea of mass catering and efficient use of food in the context of wartime rationing.

  • 1954 - Ray Kroc became the first franchisee of McDonald's appointed by Mac and Dick McDonald in San Bernadino, California.

  • 1960s - In UK, Wimpy most popular burger outlet (but children not welcome), fish and chips dominated take-away market. The era of traditional sit-down family meals, eating out is still a rare event.

  • 1970-1971 - McDonald's in every US state, starting to expand globally.

  • 1974 - First UK McDonald's opened in Woolwich, south east London. Employed a special interior designer to make it more classy. Tea introduced to the menu.

  • Mid 1970s - The rest of the food industry responds to fast-food with the development of convenience foods. 'Smash' ads for instant mashed potato feature a redundant potato-peeler. Ads emphasize speed and convenience.

  • Early 1980s - Burger King takes over Wimpy and battles for supremacy with McDonald's (which remains the comfortable market-leader). Meanwhile, Pizza Hut grows in popularity and the take-away market booms - Chinese and Indian food increasingly popular, fish and chip shops driven out of business.

  • 1986 - London Greenpeace publish fact-sheet entitled 'What's Wrong with McDonald's'. BSE (or 'mad cow disease') first identified in cattle.

  • 1990 - John Gummer feeds his daughter Cordelia a beefburger in an attempt to reassure the public that British beef is safe. More on BSE and nvCJD

  • 1990 - McDonald's opens in Pushkin Square and Gorky Street, Moscow.

  • Mid 1990s - McDonald's take legal actions to defend trademark - against companies such as English sandwich bar called McMunchies and Australian topless bar called McTits.

  • 1994 - McLibel trial begins on 28th June - lasts until 19th June 1996 [McSpotlight note: Actually 1997] It is the longest trial of any kind in British history [er...actually English history].

  • 1995 - First known victim of nvCJD Stephen Chruchill dies aged 19.

    Late 1990s - Oprah tells her audience to beware of burgers. She's denounced as UnAmerican by the Beef Lobby who threaten to sue.

  • 1999 - Super-sizing (ie. jumbo portions), introduced into many British fast-food chains - already common in the States.

  • 2001 - research by Datamonitor says that 'eating occasions' have replaced family meals. Dinner in the oven replaced by food on the move.  
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