McLibel case breaks record as meaty argument continues

Derek Cooper

Scotland on Sunday: Sunday, December 17, 1995

THIS week the extraordinary battle by McDonald's to defend its integrity, its ethical morality and, let us not beat about the bush, its profits, has qualified it for the Guinness Book of Records. It has made legal history by conducting the longest-running libel action in British legal annals.

The burger Goliath is attempting to wreak vengeance on two penniless youngsters who had the temerity to distribute a London Greenpeace Factsheet drawing attention to the alleged iniquities of the largest fast-food operator in the world.

The leaflet portrayed the company as ecologically irresponsible, unfair to its staff and motivated largely by commercial greed. For the last 17 months witnesses for the prosecution and the defence have been filing in and out of the court contributing to the fun and games.

The two defendants in this long drawn out action are Helen Steel and Dave Morris who are devoting their entire time to their defence.

Morris was a postman, Steel a gardener; if the verdict goes against them they will be bankrupted.

You might think that a mega- billion dollar company like McDonald's would be better served by maintaining a dignified silence. But not a bit of it. The case is attracting world-wide attention and the image of Big Mac is becoming increasingly tarnished as the witnesses clash with counsel in the court. Even the Duke of Edinburgh has been drawn into the fight.

Helen and Dave, known to journalists as 'the McLibel Two' have recently issued a selection of statements made by witnesses which they call 'A Year of Great McQuotes from the Witness Box.'

Part of the action centres on McDonald's activities in Brazil where rainforests are being felled to provide grazing for cattle.

McDonald's claims that it only uses US-produced beef in the USA. But the defence alleged that internal company documents admit the purchase in the UK in 1983/84 of beef imported from the rain forest country of Brazil.

Prince Philip, wearing his deerstalker as President of the World Wildlife Fund, had evidently greeted George Cohen, President of McDonald's, Canada, with: "So you are the people who are tearing down the Brazilian rain forests and breeding cattle!"

"I think you are mistaken," said Mr Cohen politely.

"Rubbish," said HRH and stormed off.

According to the defence, Fred Turner, chairman of the McDonald's Corporation, subsequently issued a worldwide edict that no McDonald's plant was to use Brazilian beef.

There have been other heated exchanges over the pollution caused by packaging. McDonald's has more than 600 outlets in Britain and serves more than a million customers a day. Ed Oakley, chief purchasing officer for the company in the UK, defended the dumping of polystyrene packaging in the ground. "I can see (it) to be a benefit, otherwise you will end up with lots of vast, empty gravel pits all over the country."

The company has always maintained that the most defamatory paragraph of the Greenpeace Factsheet centred on nutrition. On the strength of the complexities surrounding this issue the defendants were denied a trial by jury. David Green, one of the company's senior vice- presidents declared that McDonald's food was nutritious.

When asked what the company meant by 'nutritious' he defined it as providing nutrients and said it could be part of a balanced diet.

He wound up admitting that on that basis sweets and a can of Coke were nutritious.

During the course of the trial many strange opinions emerged. At one stage the company's QC admitted that McDonald's was not objecting to the description of what they sold as 'junk food'. An internal company memo was quoted which admitted "we can't really address or defend nutrition. We don't sell nutrition and people don't come to McDonald's for nutrition."

To promote the product the company invented a fictional character called Ronald McDonald whose function is to win over youngsters to the joys of visiting a Big Mac franchise. The defendants were allowed to read out an extract from the corporation's confidential Operations Manual which outlined the marketing strategy behind lovable Ronald. "Ronald loves McDonald's and McDonald's food. And so do children, because they love Ronald. Remember, children exert a phenomenal influence when it comes to restaurant selection. This means you should do everything you can to appeal to children's love for Ronald and McDonald's."

Days have been spent highlighting the company's negative attitude to the establishment of unions among the workforce, the pay the company offers its operatives, its attitude to health and safety and animal welfare. The spectacle of the most aggressive fast-food company in the world being publicly challenged by two "impoverished" citizens is a heartening one.

For those of us who deplore the way in which McDonald's is actively engaged in a campaign to manipulate food preferences in every country it sets out to conquer, the trial is a pivotal one.

If the activities of a multi-national corporation cannot be questioned what's the point of pretending we have freedom of speech? We are talking about something more important than a round of minced beef in a bun. We are talking about the freedom of the consumer to influence the way in which food companies conduct their business.

Already the trial has triggered off anti-McDonald rallies in 20 other countries despite the company's efforts to represent the issues as purely British. So shaken are the American shareholders they have asked for the action to be abandoned. Meanwhile Steel and Morris have announced that they will refuse to settle out of court unless McDonald's agrees not to sue anyone making statements similar to those they have made themselves.

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