Activists Found Guilty of Libel Vs McDonald's

By Patricia Reaney; Reuters

19th June 1997

Two penniless activists were found guilty Thursday of libelling McDonald's Corp. and were ordered to pay the world's largest restaurant chain 60,000 pounds ($98,000) after the longest trial in English legal history.

Judge Rodger Bell found that the statements in a six-page pamphlet published by Helen Steel, 31, and Dave Morris, 43, in 1984 that McDonald's was responsible for starvation in the Third World, destruction of rain forests and for selling unhealthy food "injured the plaintiff's reputation."

But other allegations that the Oak Brook, Ill.-based fast-food company's advertising was exploitative of children, that it was responsible for cruelty to some animals and that it paid low wages were accurate, he said.

"The majority of the defamatory statements I found to be untrue. Others were true," Judge Rodger Bell said in his two-hour summation of a three-volume verdict on the "McLibel" case that attracted worldwide attention.

Both sides claimed victory after the complicated judgment. "We are broadly satisfied," a McDonald's spokeswoman said in an interview.

"For the sake of our employees and our customers, we wanted to show these serious allegations to be false and I am pleased that we have done so," Paul Preston, chairman of McDonald's Restaurants Ltd. (UK) said in a later statement. Morris and Steel, who conducted their own defence during the 313-day trial after being denied state legal aid, told a packed news conference the trial had vindicated McDonald's critics.

"Despite the overwhelming odds stacked against us ... the judge has found McDonald's guilty of exploiting children, of cruelty to animals and of having an anti-union attitude," Steel said.

"We wanted to show by example that you can stand up to even the most powerful adversary," added Morris.

The crusading pair vowed to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge English libel laws. Because they have no money, they cannot pay the damages, they added.

But McDonald's said money was never the issue. "We have always said it was not our intention to bankrupt the defendants. Therefore, assuming they have no funds, it would not be our intention to pursue any damages," the spokeswoman added.

The judge said that, although a lot of the statements were found to be untrue, the pamphlet did expose some unsatisfactory conditions at the company that were taken into account when assessing damages. Bell said some of McDonald's publicity material was misleading.

The question of costs, estimated at up to 10 million pounds ($16 million), will be addressed at a later date, Bell said.

The "David and Goliath" trial of the part-time barmaid and the unemployed single father accused of libelling the $30 billion-a-year corporation is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as England's longest trial. There has been a longer trial under Scottish law.

The case, which started in 1990, contained 313 days of testimony, eight weeks of closing speeches and six months of deliberation.

Because the case was so complicated -- dealing with testimony from 180 witnesses on topics ranging from food packaging and manufacturing to labour practices, the destruction of rain forests and health issues -- Bell deemed it too complicated for a jury.

While the judge was reading out the summation, he was forced to stop and correct himself, so complex were the issues under review.

The case has been the subject of a two-part television documentary, a 300-page book and countless newspaper and magazine articles. It has spawned support groups and its own Web site, which features 19,000 pages of court testimony. Steel and Morris have always denied they defamed McDonald's in the pamphlet entitled "What's Wrong With McDonalds" but never expected to spend nearly three years of their lives defending themselves.

The 1984 pamphlet was produced by London Greenpeace, a little-known group with no link to Greenpeace International.

After receiving libel writs from McDonald's in 1989, three of the five London Greenpeace leaders apologised. But Steel and Morris refused.

Court proceedings began in June 1994 after 28 pretrial hearings and ended late last year.

The casually dressed Morris and Steel were unlikely adversaries for the impeccably wigged and robed Richard Rampton, one of England's top libel lawyers. Writer Auberon Waugh described the proceedings in the sombre courtroom No. 35 of London's Royal Courts of Justice as the "best free entertainment in town." Leading lawyer Michael Mansfield called it "the trial of the century."

"The British public owe a debt of gratitude to these two young people," Mansfield told the news conference following the judgment. "The case raised all the issues that touch every part of our daily life."

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