McDonald's is slammed as it wins libel case

The Daily Mirror (UK); 20th Jun 1997


A Judge yesterday branded McDonald's mean, cruel and manipulative after the burger giant had spent 10m to clear its name.

Mr Justice Bell said the company exploited children, was cruel to animals and paid such low wages it depressed salaries in the catering industry.

He added that customers who ate McDonald's food several times a week for a long period of time risked heart disease.

The judge's criticisms came as he ruled that an anti-McDonald's leaflet distributed by barmaid Helen Steel, 31, and single parent Dave Morris, 43, WAS defamatory.

But he awarded damages of just 60,000 and no costs. And last night the result was seen as a huge slap in the face for the 20billion company and a victory for the two dogged campaigners who had defended themselves against a battery of highly paid lawyers and experts.

After 28 pre-trial hearings and a record-breaking 314-day case, Helen and Dave pledged to carry their fight to Europe's Court of Human Rights.

They defiantly handed out the libel pamphlet to crowds outside the High Court, declaring: "Judge for yourselves!"

Then, standing before a huge banner reading "We will not be silenced," Helen vowed: "We aren't going to pay damages. I don't have the money and McDonald's don't deserve it.

"There's no way the company can claim a victory. All the criticisms in the leaflet were valid and backed by evidence."

Dave said: "We face bankruptcy. But that's trivial compared to what McDonald's is doing to our planet.

"Who's going to defend the children who are being exploited and the animals being tortured and murdered?"

McDonald's UK boss Paul Preston said the company's standards exceeded minimum legal needs. Questioned about animal cruelty, he left a press conference without replying.

A company spokesman said it would not pursue the campaigners, who have a joint income of just 7,500-a-year, to bankruptcy.

The McLibel leaflet, What's Wrong With McDonald's, accused the firm of taking advantage of children, wrecking the environment, producing unhealthy food, cruelty to animals and treating workers badly.

The judge said it was:
True that McDonald's exploited children "by using them as more susceptible subjects for advertising."

The leaflet had alleged that the company's advertising campaigns - including Ronald McDonald - trapped youngsters into thinking they were not normal if they didn't go to McDonald's. This brought pressure on parents.

Judge Bell agreed. He said: "Advertising and marketing is in large part directed at children with a view to them pressuring or pestering their parents to take them to McDonald's."

True that the firm was cruel to animals. The judge said: "A proportion of chickens are still fully conscious when they have their throats cut. This is a cruel practice for which the plaintiffs are culpably responsible."

Some laying hens, broiler chickens and pigs were also treated cruelly by being given little room to move.

McDonald's own animal expert, Dr Neville Gregory, accepted that dairy cows were subjected to stress, pain, exhaustion and disease by being forced to be almost constantly pregnant and milked.

True that McDonald's paid low wages to its staff, most of whom are under 21, "thereby helping to depress wages for workers in the catering trade."

McDonald's basic rate of pay for its staff is 3.25 per hour. The Council of Europe has set a "decent threshold" of pay at a minimum 5.88.

The judge also criticised the company's policy of sending staff home at quiet times - then not paying for the balance of their shift.

He said: "This is most unfair as it deprives the crew of pay for time which they have set aside to earn money."

True that McDonald's food, eaten to excess, could cause the risk of illness. The judge dismissed the leaflet's claim that the company's products contribute to heart disease and cancer.

But he added: "The small proportion of customers who eat McDonald's food several times a week will face the very real risk of heart disease if they continue to do so throughout their lives." But it was:

FALSE that the company destroyed rain forests.
FALSE that it was to blame for litter and starvation in the Third World.
FALSE that it lied when it said it used recycled paper.
FALSE that it discriminated against black employees.

The leaflet was at the heart of an anti-McDonald's campaign run by London Greenpeace, which has no connection with Greenpeace International. The judge said the firm was entitled to compensation for damage to its reputation and to vindicate its name.

But because some of the allegations were true he rejected the company's request that Helen and Dave each pay 40,000-60,000.

Judge Bell - who took 1hour 45minutes to read his summary, which stretches to three volumes - gave McDonald's four weeks to apply in writing for costs. Later, Mr Preston denied the case was a PR disaster which had tarnished the firm's image. He said: "We are broadly satisfied with the judgment."

Friends of the Earth hailed Helen and Dave's courage in standing up "to what we view as a bully-boy multi-national."

Barmaid Helen Steel and former postman Dave Morris gave up everything - even their love lives - to fight the case.

Helen said: "I haven't had any social life. I haven't had time for anything really.

"It gets to the point when it drives you round the twist."

She added: "I am just looking forward to doing normal things now, like going for a walk, having a holiday."

Helen, 31, did find time for one brief break during the trial, walking in Scotland. She said: "I had just climbed up Ben Lomond - it was lovely, a great view. I was really relaxed. Then I saw this guy wearing a McDonald's T-shirt!"

Single parent Dave, 43, added: "It has been a long fight, but I believe we had an obligation to stand up for what we believe in.

"I wasn't able to start work on the case each evening until I had put my son to bed. I would stay up until four in the morning preparing for the next day." His son Charlie, eight, has never been to McDonald's. "He thinks they are bullying his dad," said Dave, who lives on state benefit in a flat in Tottenham, north London.

Helen was brought up in Preston, became an anarchist, and moved to London in 1982. She campaigned against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. She met Dave on a demo blockading the City of London.

During the miners' strike they hitch-hiked to Nottinghamshire to live with a miner's family.

Helen said the McDonald's trial affected her health. "I started to suffer from eczema and insomnia.

"There were times when we really wished we didn't have to go to court because of the stress." But she added defiantly: "I never would have apologised to them." Helen lives alone in a north London bedsit and said she and Dave had never been a couple.

She said that there had been times when they had rowed about the case. "There have been phones slammed down."

Dave said: "But we are still mates," adding: "Helen's probably the ideal person to fight the case with. She's the only one I know who's more determined than I am."


The 314-day McLibel trial has been one of the most expensive in British legal history, as well as its longest.

The total cost to the taxpayer, McDonald's and the defence comes to about 11million - enough to buy a Big Mac for every man woman and child in a country the size of Norway.

And there would still be some money left over for fries. The cost of a High Court libel trial lasting more than 300 days is around 500,000 and all that money comes out of the public purse.

The taxpayer also coughed up 1,600 a day for the 28 pre-trial hearings, some lasting up to five days, and seven defence applications to the Court of Appeal. The judge in the case, Sir Rodger Bell, 57, has been working solely on McLibel since June 1994. He has studied 40,000 documents and 20,000 pages of transcripts. His salary has averaged 100,000-a-year.

A member of the Lord Chancellor's department said: "This is an extra cost because he has been doing nothing else and has been working on the case when the court has not been sitting. The total bill would have been much higher if this was a crown court trial but there is no legal aid and no jury costs in a libel case."

But the public costs are just chicken McNugget money compared to the millions spent by McDonald's. The company employed top libel QC, Richard Rampton, who together with his junior and an experienced back-up team cost the burger giant about 6,000 a day.

Mr Rampton alone commands 2,000 a day and is understood to have earned 1million from the case. McDonald's also flew in witnesses from all over the world, hired private investigators and had senior, highly paid staff in court throughout the case.

The bill to the company is estimated by The McLibel Support Campaign at 10million.

McDonald's refuses to comment on the figure, saying: "We don't consider the costs to be an issue."

For barmaid Helen Steel and unemployed single parent Dave Morris, the costs are smaller but more difficult to meet. They have funded their entire defence out of money raised by friends. Mr Morris said: "We have had to pay travelling expenses for our 60 witnesses, none of whom were paid to appear, but there were several airline tickets to buy.

"We also had to hire a photocopier to copy the thousands of documents that we needed to fight the case.

"There were also big phone bills - between 400 and 800 a quarter - and general travelling expenses."

Steel and Morris say they have raised and spent 35,000, and still owe friends money on top of that.

Conscious chicks 'were slaughtered'

Evidence of cruelty was vividly described during the trial and the judge said some of the millions of chickens slaughtered by McDonald's were still conscious when they had their throats slit.

It was also proved that some laying hens, broiler chickens and pigs were treated cruelly by being given little room to move. All pigs had their teeth clipped and one in four had their tails docked.

Dr Neville Gregory, McDonald's expert witness on rearing and slaughter, said chickens used in Chicken McNuggets and McChicken sandwiches could be badly treated.

They were crammed into sheds with with no daylight and some 44% of them had leg defects. Rejected chicks were gassed.

At six weeks, birds were hung upside down and electrically stunned. Up to 14% were given pre-stun shocks, which caused distress and one per cent - around 1,350 birds a day - were decapitated without being stunned. Dr Gregory agreed that stunning and killing methods did not comply with the Government's Codes of Practice.

'Young are being ad'

Judge Rodger Bell slammed the burger giants for exploiting kids through adverts. Advertising analyst Paul Greenwood said last night: "McDonald's spends a fortune trying to lure kids through its doors.

"They see the children's market as a massive investment for the future. "Ronald McDonald was invented many years ago as a kiddies' figure to make the chain's product appeal to children.

"His parties are a popular way for youngsters to celebrate birthdays." Mr Greenwood added: "If a big film or TV show is on the way, you can bet McDonald's will run a gift promotion." Ketchup in our veins says chief

The man at McDonald's who decided to bring the record-breaking action is the burger giant's UK president, Paul Preston.

The portly burger boss is known to colleagues at the company's London HQ as The Big Mac.

The 49-year-old executive says: "McDonald's isn't a job, it's a life. Our employees have ketchup running in their veins," Mr Preston was born and raised in Ohio, left school at 16 and went to work for McDonald's where he quickly rose in the ranks.

In 1974 he came to London to manage McDonald's first British restaurant in Woolwich, South East London.

McDonald's first began supplying burgers from one outlet on the edge of the California desert in 1954. It now has a worldwide chain of 21,000 stores in 101 countries.

To some it is the fulfilment of the American dream that brought in a worldwide turnover of 32bn dollars in 1996.

For others it is a nightmare of big business that has caused the McDonaldisation of food throughout the world.

In the UK alone, McDonald's has 760 outlets visited by 10,000,000 customers a week. The company's last annual recorded profit of 45m. Spy who switched sides to help case

Mcdonald's hired spies to infiltrate the anarchist group that campaigners Helen Steel and Dave Morris belonged to.

But one was so ashamed of what she'd done she changed sides and gave evidence against the burger giant,

Legal secretary Fran Tiller, 52, was working for King's Investigation Bureau in 1990 when McDonald's gave the firm a lucrative contract to spy on London Greenpeace.

She said: "I was asked to go to London Greenpeace and attend meetings. "I was to prick my ears up if McDonald's was mentioned and to bring back samples of leaflets."

She was disappointed by how little McDonald's were mentioned. Most of the six meetings she attended were taken up with reading out letters of support from other environmental groups.

Fran reported back to her boss weekly and he prepared regular reports for McDonald's. Afterwards, she would join the anarchists in the pub. "I was paranoid they suspected me," she said.

Some of the spies became more deeply involved. "One attended pickets, was photographed giving out leaflets and had an affair with one of the activists," said Fran.

The work made her unhappy. "I didn't see myself as a spy. I was just doing a job. At first, it seemed exciting, like something on TV, but it was a horrible job.

"They were not doing anything illegal. They were just putting their money where their mouth was.

"The job entailed telling lies and that made me quite ill. So I quit." It was some years later, through a chance meeting, that Fran discovered that Steel and Morris were fighting McDonald's through the law courts. She agreed to help them by appearing as a witness for the defence and talking about the spying operation.

Steel and Morris are now considering bringing a case for damages against the spies because they helped distribute the Factsheet.

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