McDonald's said yesterday that it has been involved in secret negotiations to end its long-running libel action against two environmentalists from north London. The case reached its first anniversary in the High Court yesterday, and is likely to last until at least next January. The secret talks were first alluded to in the Independent two weeks ago.
Mike Love, spokesman for the burger chain, said the company was "not seeking a way out of the case". He added: "We're confident of the strength of our case and we're seeking a judgement at the end of the case.
"Discussions have taken place in confidence and I think you would expect that to happen in a trial of this length. We only reluctantly came to court after 10 years."
McDonald's accuses Helen Steel and Dave Morris, dubbed the McLibel Two by their supporters, of distributing a leaflet that is highly critical of the company's environmental record, the treatment of its workers and the nutritional quality of its food. The company claims that the allegations contained in the leaflet, What's Wrong With McDonald's, are untrue and libellous. The leaflet was widely circulated in 1980s and McDonald's says it had to act against it before the allegations became accepted by the public.
The McLibel Two claim the court action has backfired against the burger chain. Ms Steel said: "The views expressed in the factsheet are now circulating in ever-increasing numbers throughout the world - in the UK alone over a million leaflets have been distributed since the writs were slapped on us."
McDonald's has refused to reveal the details of the negotiations but stated at the start of the trial the terms under which it would settle. Mr Love said it would have dropped the case if Ms Steel and Mr Morris had accepted that the allegations were untrue and if they had undertaken not to repeat them.
From the start, Ms Steel and Mr Morris have had nothing to lose and everything to gain from the trial. They are both unemployed and have no money or property to lose. They are representing themselves so they have no legal costs and have successfully used the court as a vehicle to broadcast their allegations against the multinational to an eager world.
The case has now turned into a public relations disaster for McDonald's. Damaging allegations about its entire corporate strategy have been disseminated worldwide. According to documents seen by the Independent, the company now has a corporate strategy designed to minimise publicity of the case and has drawn up a blacklist of journalists and media companies to whom it will not talk.
In Australia it has refused to comment to journalists questioning the logic of the trial. The documents state that the trial should be kept "at arm's length" so the company would "not become guilty by association". Publicity was to be minimised by claiming that the trial was purely a domestic issue and comment could "worsen the controversy".