Trial That's made a meal of it

by Carol Midgley

The Times; 13th December 1996 (UK)

Report on Britian's longest-ever trial, in which two
individuals took the might on of McDonald's

Glance inside the panelled walls of Court 35 at the Royal Courts of justice today and you will sense the unmistakable. if restrained. v. whiff in celebration.

After 314 days in which hundreds of witnesses have given evidence and 40,000 documents and 20,000 pages of transcripts have been shuffled back and forth across the close the longest trial in British history, draws to a close this evening.

For the legal team representing the McDonald's Corporation it means an early Christmas break and a gargantuan sigh of relief that. Bar Mr Justice Bell's judgment early next year, "McLibel: The Trial" is finally over. For David Morris and Helen Steel the penniless, denim-clad campaigners who distributed leaflets criticising McDonald's food practices and environmental policy and were swiftly sued for defamation, it means freedom. For the first time in two and a half years they can wake up and not have to think about fries, polystyrene burger trays and the corporate clown Ronald McDonald. From the moment they decided to fight one of the most powerful multinational giants in the world instead of tugging their forelocks and apologising, Morris, 42, and Steel, 32, effectively gave up any semblance of normal life.

Forced to represent themselves in court (libel cases do not qualify for legal aid) they have spent their days pitted against the eminent libel QC Richard Rampton for McDonald's, and their evenings and weekends in preparation for the next day's hearing poring over international faxes about rainforests, corn seed or battery hens, untrained, unadvised, unwaged - the ultimate David and Goliath battle.

Win or lose, Morris and Steel now believe that they have at least won the moral battle. They have, they say, put McDonald's ethics and practices on trial for the first time and let the public judge for themselves whether the organisation is as oppressive as they claim. "It will be a weird feeling when we walk out," says Steel, whose father was a union activist from Lancashire. "It has been an incredibly stressful experience - the pressure has been relentless because we haven't the resources and back-up team they have had but there is no way we regret it. I feel very positive about the whole thing. People should ask themselves how we managed to get this far.

"Of course there are loads of ways I would rather have spent the last few years of my life, like climbing mountains or working in the countryside, but I was always taught to stand up to things I didn't believe were right."

The former agriculture student. gardener and voluntary worker met Morris, an ex-postman, in a Haringey community action group in the mid-Eighties and via an allotment plot they used to share. Both political activists, their friendship grew while picketing during the miners strike and they became members of London Greenpeace, an environmental and civil rights group which targeted, among other organisations McDonald's. Five members were issued with wets, three of whom apologised. Steel and Moms refused.

She admires him for his passion and resolve. he admires her for her uncompromising principles and the fact she once went on a week-long hunger strike outside. Harrods over Christmas to raise money for famine relief.

One of the most common but incorrect assumptions about their alliance is that they are a "couple" who took on authority together, hand-in-hand. As they sit in Steels groundfloor bed-sit in Tottenham, north London, stacked with files and papers and decorated with crusading posters such as "Solidarity with 100 sacked Liverpool dockers", they smile wearily at the suggestion.

"We are not in a relationship, no, although a lot of people think it," says the bespectacled and teacherish looking Morris. "I knew I wouldn't be able to take it all on on my own but I said to Helen that if she wanted to fight it I would come in with her. I'm glad I did. We are nearing the end of the 20th century and sociery is clearly at a crossroads."

"We do argue because we are in a very intense situation, but it's usually about the case. Nothing else and it helps to clear the air. Basically we both want the same things in society so we get on."

At the time of the writs, September 1990 Morris, the son of a schoolteacher and a tallyman, was living with his then partner and their young son. The couple has since separated and he now looks after Charlie, 7, alone at their home close to Steel's in Tottenham.

"Charlie has been very patient and understanding. It has been hard because I haven't been able to give him all mv attention. Children are the most vulnerable section of society. If I hadn't been in court I would be more involved in my local politics groups and parents groups at school and play schemes because that is what countsšthat is where change is really made.

"I had to bring him into court one day. The central heating at his school had broken down and I could not find a childminder for him. The judge's clerk ended up looking after him all day. He got taken into the room behind the judge's chair and felt very grand."

During the trial the "McLibel Two" have raised less than £40,000 with the help of supporters, against McDonald's legal fund of £10 million. (Richard Rampton alone is on £2,000 a day.) Morris claims income support and Steel works in the bar of a West End nightclub at weekends. Both accept £15 a week travel costs from the McLibel Support campaign fund but refuse cash for themselves.

Steel says she has often grown bored in count. Morris says: "I never got bored. but it was a very long drawn-out case." Steel adds: "When it first started we weren't having any days off at all but then we realised that it wasn't sustainable. You have to have days off or you'd go mad. I would sit in the park or go out with friends, but it's always with you. We are only defending our right to free speech and to put powerful companies under scrutiny.

It was on November 1 that the trial passed its milestone of 292 days making it the longest ever. Until then the Tichborne impersonation case of 1871, which comprised a civil and criminal trial and concerned a dispute over the inheritance of the Tichborne Estate in Hampshire, held that distinction, lasting 291 days. Arthur Orton, who had falsely posed as the long-lost brother of the late Baron of Tichborne, was sentenced to two consecutive terms ot imprisonment and hard labour.

If Steel and Morris lose, McDonald's has indicated that it will not he seeking damages just a clarification of accurate facts. However, much of the damage is done. On the Internet is "McSpotlight" set up by supporters of Morris and Steel, which contains millions of words from the trial and clips of film. In its first week it was accessed 174,000 times.

In the meantime, the McLibel Two are looking forward to their first stress-free Christmas for years. Steel will stay with friends and family in Scotland, while Morris will take Charlie to The Netherlands. "Itwill be our first proper holiday together for four years," he says. "Charlie deserves it and I think that I need it."

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