The Times (UK); 20th June 1997

Victory for McDonald's
after Dave and Goliath libel fight


THE fast-food chain McDonald's won a pyrrhic victory yesterday when it was awarded £60,000 in damages at the end of its £10 million record-breaking libel action against two "green" campaigners, Dave Morris and Helen Steel.

After a 314-day trial spread over 2 1/2 years, the longest in English legal history, Mr Justice Bell ruled that the company had been libelled by most of the allegations in a leaflet published by the protesters in the late 1980s.

But in a ruling that also prompted the protesters to claim victory, the judge upheld three allegations, saying that the leaflet was true when it accused McDonald's of paying low wages to its workers, of cruelty in the rearing of some of its animals and in the way children were exploited in the targeting of its advertising.

In the contest, dubbed McLibel, McDonald's sued Mr Morris, 43, a former postman, and Ms Steel, 31, a former gardener. The pair, who have next to no money, defended themselves with the help of £35,000 raised by the McLibel support campaign.

The action was brought over a pamphlet which accused the corporation of being responsible for starvation in the Third World, of destroying vast areas of Central American rainforest, of serving unhealthy food, of cruelty in the rearing and slaughter of its animals, of treating its workers badly and of exploiting children in its advertising and marketing.

Mr Justice Bell awarded a total of £30,000 against Mr Morris and Ms Steel for each of the two companies in the action, McDonald's Corporation and McDonald's Restaurants Ltd. Ms Steel was jointly responsible for £27,500 of the total because her involvement was over a shorter time.

He rejected a counter-claim for libel damages by the pair in which they complained that they were defamed by McDonald's in the company's reply to their allegations.

Yesterday McDonald's said it did not intend to pursue the couple for damages: they have a joint income of less than £7,500 a year. A spokesman said that the company's concern was to stop the campaign and vindicate its reputation, which yesterday's judgment had done.

After the ruling, Mr Morris said they had lost the case on a technicality and promised to take the fight to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge Britain's "oppressive" libel laws.

Ms Steel said: "This trial completely vindicates McDonald's critics and our stance in resisting their attempts to silence people."

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Seven years well spent, say activists

DAVE MORRIS and Helen Steel cannot remember handing out the fateful leaflet in 1986. They were more involved in other campaigns: Morris against the poll tax, Steel on the IMF and World Bank.

But they were both active members of an anti-McDonald's campaign. Their defence took over their lives, bringing unprecedented stress, but they do not regret it. Ms Steel said: "If I had known how long it was going to last ­ over seven years from the writs ­ how much work was involved, how daunting it was going to be, I would have fought it anyway. It's important to stand up for what you believe in."

They were shocked when writs were issued on September 20, 1990. Solicitors told them there was no legal aid for libel. Three protesters who also received writs went to court and apologised. Ms Steel and Mr Morris chose to fight.

Often it meant work around the clock. Mr Morris, a postman and lone parent on income support, was trying to look after his son, Charlie, now eight. Ms Steel, a former gardener, was trying to move from Yorkshire to Tottenham, where Mr Morris lived. He said: "I could work on the case only after my son had gone to sleep. For the first year, I was up until four in the morning." Ms Steel developed skin ailments after "phenomenal stress".

The worst moment, they said, was when all the witness statements had to be served in three weeks. Ms Steel almost gave up: "This came after a stream of 28 legal hearings. Dave persuaded me to hang on in there." They blitzed their supporters and friends and succeeded in mustering the 65 statements. From that moment, McDonald's knew they were in earnest. "They were stunned," she said.

The trial became a way of life. The daily Tube to the Royal Courts of Justice became an office on the move, where they studied the latest faxes or documents. The McLibel Support Campaign raised £35,000 while McDonald's paid a legal team up to £8,000 a day. Mr Justice Bell allowed Mr Morris to use his chambers when Charlie had to be taken to court and adjourned the trial to accommodate half-terms.

Mr Morris said the experience was "empowering" and added: "Just as McDonald's are a symbol of the economic system, we have become the symbol of the alternative ideas. That gave us a lot of strength."

Internet delivers an instant worldwide verdict

AS MR JUSTICE BELL gave his ruling on the McLibel case yesterday, activists began to deliver their verdict on the Internet. The World Wide Web is a haven for those who want to see the golden arches torn down, and the hearing produced much criticism of McDonald's on screen.

Some of the Web sites are risqué and amateurish. The most organised is McSpotlight, produced in north London by the McInformation Network. It has run the full text of the court proceedings and has a "debating room", where critics discuss all matters relating to McDonald's.

Typical of the e-mails sent yesterday was one from a Mark Williams: "The poor little average citizen," he wrote, "can eat at McDonald's but not have a valid opinion about whether it is a good idea." Other messages offered support to the defendants and many complained about the length of the trial. Last year Dave Morris contributed, with a message that ended: "Together, people are more powerful than chequebooks and lawbooks."

The McInformation Network estimated that the site had been accessed at least 12 million times. It claims that McDonald's accessed the site 1,700 times in the first week after its launch. The group believes that only the threat of more negative publicity has stopped McDonald's from attempting to close the site down. Tim Hardy, a media lawyer with Cameron McKenna, said: "McDonald's could consider suing the Internet service providers but the legal hurdles are immense. It would be a new area of law and take a lot of expensive litigation."

Yesterday members of the McInformation Network were busy entering the text of Mr Justice Bell's summarised verdict. "We are also going to enter the full 800-page verdict," Devin Howse, a member, said. "We hope to have a statement from Dave Morris and Helen Steel."

McDonald's own Website made no reference to the trial yesterday. Instead, it offered a special deal on a breakfast sandwich.

Trial facts

Trial from June 1994 to November 1996 lasted 313 days, longest in English legal history.

Evidence given by 180 witnesses and 40,000 documents were produced. Summing-up took eight weeks.

More than two million leaflets summarising the original allegations handed out since the trial beghan.

Internet site McSpotlight accessed almost 12 million times since its launch in February 1996.

Estimated trial costs of £10 million would buy 5,434,782 Big Macs.

McLibel decision fails to silence the small fries


THE environmental activists who fought the McDonald's libel action staged an immediate act of defiance after claiming yesterday's ruling as a victory. Helen Steel and Dave Morris gave leaflets summarising their allegations against McDonald's to crowds outside the law courts, shouting: "Judge for yourselves, read the leaflets. We will not be silenced."

The six-page leaflet that prompted the case, called What's Wrong with McDonald's?, was part of a campaign run by London Greenpeace, which has no connection with Greenpeace International.

McDonald's hoped that a ruling in its favour from the High Court in London would serve as a deterrent to the worldwide protest campaign and as a vindication of its procedures and practices.

Yesterday Paul Preston, chairman and chief executive of McDonald's Restaurants (UK) Ltd, said: "This judgment represents a thorough audit of our business. Based on the overwhelming evidence given in support of our case, we believe that our employees and customers will be reassured by the judgment."

At a press conference for McDonald's opponents, Michael Mansfield, QC, the leading left-wing lawyer, drew cheers when he said: "This clearly represents a major victory for these two individuals. We owe a debt of gratitude to these two young people who have dared to tread where others have not dared to tread. The issues touch every part of our working lives."

The writs were issued seven years ago. The climax of the legal proceedings lasted just two hours yesterday when Mr Justice Bell read out a 45-page summary of his judgment.

He found it was not true that McDonald's was responsible for destroying rainforests with lethal poisons to provide cattle grazing and timber for packaging, thus helping to wreck the planet.

Nor was there evidence that McDonald's had bought vast tracts of land in Costa Rica, Guatemala or Brazil or that small farmers and tribal peoples had been dispossessed.

Mr Justice Bell said there was some evidence that McDonald's publicity in 1990 was misleading about the recycled content of some of its packaging in Britain, but this did not justify the charge of lying.

On the health aspect of McDonald's food, he said the leaflet said it was high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals. But the risk of heart disease, he said, was only true in relation to customers who ate there several times a week over a period of years. The risk of bowel cancer might be increased to some extent, but there was no evidence in relation to breast cancer.

He said that some of McDonald's promotional claims that the food had a positive nutritional benefit "did not match" the reality of a product that was high in saturated fat and salt. The risk of food poisoning from eating McDonald's products was minimal, he said, and an allegation that customers were exposed to residues of antibiotic drugs, growth-promoting hormones and pesticides was not true.

The judge upheld the activists' claims in three areas. He agreed that McDonald's advertising and marketing "makes considerable use of susceptible young children to bring in custom". But the complaint that McDonald's promoted the consumption of its meals as a fun event while knowing that the contents could poison the children was not justified.

The protesters had also shown that hens, broiler chickens and some pigs were treated cruelly by being given little room to move at least for some part of their lives, while a small proportion of the millions of chickens slaughtered were still fully conscious when their throats were slit.

The judge said there was evidence that McDonald's paid low wages, but it was not true that it was interested only in recruiting cheap labour and that it exploited disadvantaged groups, particularly women and black people: "They treat women and black crew members the same as the rest so far as pay and conditions of employment are concerned. They do not target them as cheap labour. They are genuinely equal opportunity employers."

The judge said McDonald's was entitled to compensation for damage to its trading reputation and goodwill and to vindicate its good name. He said that in awarding damages, the financial means of the defendants were irrelevant and he did not know whether the burger chain would seek to enforce the judgment.

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