The McLibel Trial

An Update with Dan Mills

Satya, May Issue 1997

Next month, Mr Justice Bell is expected to offer his verdict in the McLibel Trial, where two supporters of London Greenpeace (not affiliated with Greenpeace Interncrional) are being sued for libel by McDonald's. At 31 months, it is the longest trial and by three times the longest libel trial in English history. In its law suit, McDonald's, annual income $30 billion, has spent over $10 million employing leading lawyers to conduct their case. In their defence, Helen Steel (31) and Dave Morns (43), combined annual income $10,000, have been denied a Iawyer (because libel cases in the Untited Kingdom do not automatically provide for one) and a jury (after McDanald's argued the case involved too many technicalities for a jury to understand), and so they have had to argue their case themselves.

Steel and Morris are being sued for alleged libel over a factsheet produced by London Greenpeace in the mid-1980s, 'Whats Wrong With McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know." Since McDonald's announced it was suing Steel and Morris, over two million of these leaflets have been distributed. In addition, since it went up in February 1996, the McSpodight website (which contains all 313 days of offcial court transcripts and 19,000 pages of testimony), has been accessed 11 million times. When Satya first talked to Dan Mills, the offce coordinator of the Mclibel Compaign, three years ago, neither he nor we expected the case to go on so long or have so many ramifications. Satya thought it was time for an update.

Q: What are the important lessons ofthe McLibel trial?
A: The main thing we've learned is that even though at the beginning the odds can seem so heavily stacked against you, if you actually stand your ground and know you've got truth on your side, you can really turn things around. When Helen and Dave decided they were going to fight the case, they were really up against it. They had a $30 billion corporation breathing down their necks, having issued libel proceedings. They had no money of their own (you can't get legal aid to defend libel actions. so no state funding was available to pay for lawyers). That meant they had to do it all on their own and, since at that time no one else knew about it, they had no support. The moment Helen and Dave gritted their teeth and decided to give it their best shot was a turning point. It meant that McDonald's bluff had been called. The fact that Helen and Dave managed to get together the legal documents required, go along to pre-trial hearings, argue their case, and gradually get more experienced doing it, started the process of fighting McDonald's on their own territory - in the courts - and this caught McDonald's completely off guard. Then the support started to snowball. People wrot messages of support. sent in donations to fund the campaign. and were prepared to give evidence for free. Helen and Dave gathered 94 witnesses, which is phenomenal and all of them came across really well.

Q: What happens once the verdict comes through?
A: The verdict will be multifaceted. First the judge is going to rule on all the different issues from the factsheet, "What's Wrong With McDonald's." So he's got to look at the original Ieaflet and what that says about nutrition, for example, and decide what his interpretation of the factsheet is. Then he's got to Iook at the evidence and weigh it up and decide whether the interpretation is justified. The burden of proof here lies with Helen and Dave to show that the factsheet was true.

As well as the issues in the factsheet there are two other twists to the case. The first is th counterclaim. Not only is McDonald's suing Helen and Dave for libel, but Helen and Dave are suing McDonald's for libel over a leaflet McDonald's brought out before the trial which called Helen and Dave liars. Here the burden of proof lies with McDonald's to prove that the original factsheet was untrue and that Helen and Dave knew it was untrue. Therefore, every issue is going to be decided on the basis of the main claim and the counterclaim. It could therefore, easily happen that the judge decide in McDonald's favor for its claim, but against it in the counterclaim on any particular issue.

Q: What's the second twist?
A: The second twist concerns publication. In order for Helen and Dave to have any responsibility for the factsheet, assuming the judge decides it is libelous McDonald's has to prove that Helen and Dave were involved in its publication or distribution. During the trial, we had a whole section of evidence on publicaion. Ironically, Helen and Dave did not publish or disuibute this particular factsheet, although they have defended the criticisms of it. The evidence on publication included information that McDonald s brought in private investigators to infiltrate London Greenpeace [no relation to Greengeace U.K.] in the 1980s. These investigators went to meetings with the group for about 18 months and got up to all sorts of dirty tricks to get information, such as following people home to get their addresses, stealing letters, and breaking into the London Greenpeace office. One of the spies even had an affair with someone from London Greenpeace.

Q: What does the evidence show about these "investigators"?
A: Not only have we had evidence from four of these investigators for McDonald's, but we have had evidence from another investigator who actually came over to the defense because she said she felt uncomfortable with what she was doing. Not only is McDonald's evidence very tenuous on Helen and Dave's involvement with the publication or distribution of the leaflet, but we are arguing that since all these investigators have admitted that they answered letters which involved puting copies of the factsheet in an envelope, and ran stalls where the factsheet was available, etc., they are therefore liable for the leaflet as well. So, Helen and Dave could sue the spies for contributions to damages, if any damages are awarded against them. That could be highly embarrassing for McDonald's.

Q: What might happen if Helen and Dave lose the main case?
A: There are options, such as appealing the verdict to higher courts like the Court of Appeal in the U.K. McDonald s could do that as well, if it loses parts or all of the judgment. Helen and Dave could also appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which occurs quite a lot in Britain when people don t get justice in the national courts. Helen and Dave will argue that they haven t been given a fair trial because, among other injustices, they were denied a jury.

Q: What has the media coverage of the trial been like?
A: The media have generally focused on the human interest story of Helen and Dave's lives, which is fine. But when it comes to the issues, the press has been seriously lacking. It's partly because the media are very scared of critcizing, part of the continuing climate of intimidation McDonald s created in the 1980s. Also, in general, the media are superficial. so important, fundamental issues are skated over for what press says is interesting to their readers, human interest stories. There have been some notable exceptions. Recently the San Francisco Chronicle did a good, Iengthy piece.

Q: What about other types of public? A: Its cerrainly worth taking advantage publicity. Here we've fought McDonald's completely on their territory in the courts and in the media. The trial has allowed the media to look at McDonald's more critically than it would have been able to otherwise. You can sometimes become a bit too focused on just seeking publicity and getting articles in the press for the sake of it This is why I'm going to continue to stress leafleting of "What's wrong with McDonald's." That's what we feel is fundamental, because there you're actually reaching out to people without the media being in between. Because the media fundamentally are part of the establishment, they're only going to go so far in reporting something.

Q: Was that why you set up McSpotlight?
A: Yes. We felt the media weren't covering the trial as we felt they should be. It's only on landmark days that we've managed to drag the media down to the court: when the trial became the longest trial in English history, or on the trial's first or second anniversary.

McSpotlight has enabled a lot more people to see all the issues. It's there for people who want to do research, either for their own interests or because they're journalists. All the information is there, including materials McDonald's tried to censor. All the transcripts are now on-line as is Richard Rampton's (McDonald's chief lawyer) closing speech, so people can have both points of view and judge for themselves.

McSpotlight is also meant as a campaigning tool. It has leaflets in different languages you can print out, so that people can then immediately go out, get copies made, and hand them out. McSpotlight has debating rooms where people can interact and put across their point of view, or respond to other people's messages. While McSpotlight is a phenomenal tool. in the end you can't be too overawed by the Internet. There are a lot of people who don't have access. Indeed, the reason why McSpotlight has been so influetibal and important is that it is part of a wider campaign. McSpotlight is plugged in to what's happening with the trial and what we're doing with the Support Campaign, and we're all feeding off each other.

Q: What other campaigns have there been?
A: Every 16th October is the World Day of Action Against McDonald's, on which there are protests in about 25 countries around the world. Last year, in the U.S. and Canada, about 30 towns and cities had actions, including a couple of rooftop demonstrations. In the U.K, people leafleted about 250 stores across the country. This year we're calling for an international Victory Day of Action on the Saturday after the verdict, and we're asking people to adopt stores in the U.K. and pledge to leaflet outside them that day. This way, we can ensure that as many stores across the country as possible are adopted, so we can pinpoint ones that haven't been adopted and try and get people to adopt them. Currently, 334 stores have been adopted, which is about half the number of stores in the U.K. We're hoping to boost that before the verdict to 450 or 500. And we're expecting protests to take place around the world. This will be a message not only to McDonald's but also to the legal system, because the leaflet is going to be handed out whatever the judge says. We believe that the leaflet is 100 percent true, and that it has been proven 100 percent true in court. People are going to carry on handing it out, because there are going to be so many of us doing it that there's nothing they can do about it. The leaflet we're using is a newly revised version. It consists of all the same issues every word in the leaflet has been proven true in the court case and has been referenced to transcripts and documentary evidence

Q: What are the larger messages from the McLibel case, whatever the verdict?
A: You've got to realize you can't change things overnight. We're battling against a corporation that's expanding around the world all the time. We have to face the fact that McDonald's open 100 new stores in the U.K. during 1997, is opening in new counuies all the time - it's now in over 100 counuies and that it has about 20,000 stores worldwide. It's easy to get disheartened by that, and just think that there's nothing you can do to make a dent. But I think you can be realistic and still think that if you keep chipping away you will make a differcence if not now, then in 10 or 20 years time.

That's why we think the leaflets are so important people going out on the streets handing out leaflets outside stores. You've got to look at this at a microlevel: just one per may consider not going into McDonald's. For this person it's a very important decision. If they start thinking about the issues more - about what they are doing to their health and health of the planet by eating there - then is very important. It's important that corporations don't get free rein to do what they want. So much is on their side already: they have the resources, the wealth, and influence over politicians, government, and people's lives through their $2 billion-a-year advertising budgets. But if s very important that people shout out the truth to counter their propaganda


It may not make the news, but people are fighting back aginst McDonald's in all sorts of ways.

Since McDonald's admitted that it was "likely ... that for some workers, at some times, their overall pay ... was less than their statutory entitlement," former U.K. employees of McDonald's are suing the company for their back pay.

In Canada, 82 percent of workers at a McDonald's in Quebec have joined the Teamsters, the first time unionisation has succeeded in a McDonald's franchise. Meanwhile, in Norway, a TV investigative journalist recently exposed McDonald's hosility to trade unions and how the company is acively working against young workers organizing in stores. As a result of the ensuing controversy, the Norwegian Labor Ministry called McDonald's executives to account.

In East Grinstead (U,K,), a local resident is applying to the courts to overturn the decision of the local authority granting McDonald's permission to build a DriveThru, claiming it will cause traffc congestion, If he wins, it will make it more difficult for McDonald's to claim that proposed Drive-Thrus have a negligible effect on traffic flows.

In New South Wales, Australia, residents sent 5,000 letters to the local council objecting to the proposed siting of a McDonald's in their area Only 15 letters of support were received, and the project was canceled.

A law firm, representing several English children who contacted E coli food poisoning after eating McDonald's products, is suing the company, its suppliers, and the U.K. Department of Health and Ministry of Agriculture for compensation.

In Bermuda, premier Dr.David Saul resigned after he allowed former premier Sir John Swan to operate a number of McDonald's franchises on the island. A bill has passed Bermuda's lower house banning McDonald's and other fast food stores from the island. The Senate will vote on the bill in late June.

Lord MacDonald, Chief of Clan Donald in Scotland, has berated McDonald's for trying to assert global dominion over the prefix "Mc" (used by the Scots and Irish for centuries). McDonald's latest legal threat for breach of trademark has been against a Scottish cafe owner who innocently called her cafe "McMunchies." In response, a retired Scottish school teacher, Mr. Ronald McDonald, has proposed opening a restaurant and call it "McDonald's."

The families of two workers each fatally electrocuted while working at McDonald's stores in England and Australia are calling for new inquests into the cause of death and have instituted suits. They are using damning information which emerged during the McLibel trial about safety concerns in McDonald's stores worldwide.


  • McDonald's profit worldwide was S I.S billion in 1996.
  • There are 26.3 grams of fat in a Big Mac of which 12.6 grams are saturated fats.
  • The company employs 1 00 to 100 Ronald McDonald's in the U.S. for local performances and events.
  • Half of those who eat out in the U.S. do so at fast food stores, a third of whom eat at burger joints (and 40 percent of those eat at McDonald's).
  • McDonald's receives at least 1500 to 2750 customer complaints of food poisoning each year. McDonald's is the world's large* user of beef and second largest user of chicken.
  • McDonald's used some beef (approximately 10 percent of a carcass) from approximately one in 12 of all cattle slaughtered in the U.K.
  • At least 80 to 120 million chickens are killed each year in the U.S. for McDonald's.
  • AO informrJtion is either from the McLibel tnal or from McDonald's own publiaty mrrterial.

Find out more about the McLibel case by contacting The McLibel Support Campaign at: on the Intemet or by tel /fax 011-44-171-713-1269.

The US. McLibel Support Campaign can be contacted at PO Box 62, Craftsbury, VT OS826-0062. Tel: 802-586-9628.

This month Macmillan is publishing a sanitized book on the trial, entitled McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial by John VidaL

A definitive TV documentary is currently in production. For more information on this documentary, contact One Off Productons, tel/fax: 011-44-171-681-0832 or e-mail:

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