Western Morning News

20th Jun 1997

AFTER the longest trial in English legal history hamburger giants McDonald's was awarded a relatively paltry 60,000 in libel damages yesterday.

The company may feel its reputation has been restored after environmental protesters attacked it in a leafleting campaign. But most people will be asking themselves today: Was it really worth it?

The case is reckoned to have cost McDonald's 10 million in legal fees. The trial has lasted two and a half years. During that time the media coverage has ensured the views of the environmentalists who libelled the burger chain were given massive worldwide exposure. And there is likely to be more adverse publicity for McDonald's in the future, as a result of this case.

Yesterday the green campaigners who defamed McDonald's, Dave Morris and Helen Steel, pledged to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in a bid to challenge Britain's "oppressive" libel laws. It all adds up to a very unhappy episode for both sides and one that could, so easily, have been avoided.

The leaflet at the centre of the case accused McDonald's of being responsible for starvation in the Third World, and destroying vast areas of Central American rainforest to establish cattle ranches.

On both counts the judge found that those statements were untrue and libelled the burger giants. He therefore found against the green protesters and ordered them to pay the damages.

But on some other allegations contained in the leaflet, the judge did not rule against the protesters.

In essence, he found only a part of the McDonald's case proven and in giving his judgment he made several quite critical comments about the burger chain and its food.

It can hardly have been the outcome McDonald's executives would have wanted. When they heard the judge describe them - as he did in part of his judgment - as "culpably responsible" for the "cruel practice" under which some chickens are slaughtered, they must have wondered who had won the case. As to the 60,000 they have been awarded in damages, there seems little chance they will get it.

Both Dave Morris and Helen Steel are described as "unwaged" and it will now be for McDonald's to try and get the money if it can.

Of course McDonald's went to court not because it wants, or needs, the money. The company took action because it has a worldwide reputation and millions of customers. Bosses wanted to put a stop to unfounded and ill-informed attacks on the business.

The problem is the libel action that has just ended would appear to have failed to do that.

Even after the case the McLibel Two - as Dave Morris and Helen Steel have become known - were distributing more leaflets about the burger giants.

They also received messages of support from mainstream environmental organisations like Friends of the Earth and the Food Commission. Top campaigning barrister Michael Mansfield also threw his weight behind them and said the outcome of the case had been a "major victory" for the pair, notwithstanding the fact that they lost.

Before this case all most people knew about McDonald's was that it sold a lot of hamburgers and used a huge yellow "M" as its symbol. Virtually no one outside of the fringes of the environmental movement had heard of Morris and Steel or their fanatical views.

Now it is over McDonald's will find itself talked about and read about for all the wrong reasons and the McLibel Two are almost certainly heading for Swampy-style fame.

McDonald's is, of course, putting a brave face on the outcome of this case. Its boss is right to say that, in law, the company's reputation has been restored. But the next multi-national company faced with a couple of zealots distributing ill-founded leaflets about its activities might be advised to think twice before calling in the libel lawyers.

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