Anarchists Never Fighting To Win


The Sctosman; 20th Jun 1997

THERE is nothing so dangerous as a man and woman with nothing to lose. Of the five London Greenpeace activists named in the original libel writ, only Dave Morris and Helen Steel chose to take on one of the world's biggest corporations.

No wonder McDonald's misjudged the pair. Its corporate strategy is based on the premise that people will always opt for convenience. The idea that anyone would put career, relationships and family on hold and devote nearly three years to defending a principle is simply beyond the comprehension of a McDonald's executive.

Mr Morris, 43, has no problem putting up with peeling wallpaper, threadbare carpets and even a hole in his kitchen ceiling. But he could never endure a multinational corporation dictating what he was allowed to say.

With a combined income of 7,500, the pair had little choice but to represent themselves in court. Although they lived within a mile of each other in modest terraced houses in Tottenham, north London, there was little time for detailed planning. Most of their strategy meetings were conducted while hanging on to the straps in a crowded Tube train on the way to court.

"It was much more stressful than a full-time job because you could never get away from it. We were thinking about it all the time," said Ms Steel, 31, a former gardener and minibus driver, who now works a few nights a week in a West End pub.

Ms Steel, the daughter of a maths teacher and office worker, always wanted to work in farming but then visited a slaughterhouse and went off the idea. She has been a vegan since she was 16. When she joined London Greenpeace at 22 her main interest was the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

She met Mr Morris at a Stop the City demonstration where London Greenpeace and thousands of others tried to blockade the City of London. The two have never been romantically linked.

Taking on McDonald's was a matter of instinct: "I didn't think much about it, it was a gut thing. My mother always told me to stand up to bullies." She never expected it to take quite so long, however. "One year I went to Scotland and climbed up Ben Lomond to take my mind off the case. When I reached the top, there was a man standing there wearing a McDonald's T-shirt," she said. Mr Morris, a single parent of an eight-year-old son, had even less time off. Having separated from his partner before the trial, he would pick up Charley after court each day and play with him until he went to bed. Then he would work on filing and witness preparation.

The son of East Enders, Mr Morris has described his childhood as socialistic and humanistic. His parents rarely allowed him to watch ITV because it contained adverts, which were "sermons of the modern religion of consumerism". Before becoming a full-time father, he worked as a postman in Islington for five years. He was branch secretary of his union for a while and went to a trade union college after leaving the Post Office. But he stayed only a short time, saying: "You get more education from the real world than college."

What motivated him to keep up the fight against McDonald's, when it must have seemed like beating his head against a brick wall? "The brick wall needed to be knocked down."

Sometimes it seemed taller than others. Ms Steel remembers one occasion when she could not hear the judge because those representing themselves must sit on a front bench below the judge's eye level. "I stood up, hoping I might be able to make out what he was saying. I didn't say a word, but the judge shouted at me to sit down and stop interrupting." She learned later that court procedure deems that you signal your desire to speak by standing up.

Unlike in the United States, where a company suing for libel must demonstrate that what was printed was false, in England the burden of proof lies with the defendant. Undaunted, the McLibel Two set out to demonstrate line by line that their allegations against McDonald's were true.

They soon learned that documentation was rarely enough. The court usually insisted that expert witnesses appear to defend their analyses. Using public donations, the pair flew in experts from around the world to testify on their behalf.

Sometimes McDonald's employees found themselves on the witness stand, which often provided the most entertaining moments in the 314-day case. Defending the corporation against the charge that its packaging contributed to litter and "polluting the land" by clogging up landfill sites, Ed Oakley, McDonald's UK head of purchasing, giving evidence, said: "I can see [the dumping of waste] to be a benefit, otherwise you will end up with lots of vast, empty gravel pits all over the country."

It was moments like that that made it all worthwhile for Mr Morris and Ms Steel. The self-styled anarchists were never fighting to win. They just wanted to challenge the "arrogance" of the litigious corporation and ensure that their views gained a much wider hearing.

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