Peniless Losers in Court Still Claim Victory Over Mighty McDonald's

Yorkshire Post (UK)

20th Jun 1997

Fast food giant made to swallow unpalatable remarks after the longest case in English legal history.

McLibel, the High Court's David and Goliath battle between two eco warriors and the might of McDonald's, ended yesterday with the fast food giant winning 60,000 damages.

But "David" - penniless green activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris - claimed they were the real victors of the 314-day trial spread over nearly three years. Mr Justice Bell ruled at the end of the longest case in English legal history that the company had been libelled by most of the allegations in a leaflet 'What's Wrong With McDonald's?' published in the late Eighties and still in circulation.

But the judge found that the leaflet was truthful when it accused McDonald's of paying low wages to its workers, being responsible for cruelty to some of the animals used in its food, and exploiting children in its advertising campaigns. McDonald's is estimated to have spent #10m in legal costs suing former postman Mr Morris, 43, and former gardener Ms Steel, 31, over a long-running campaign by environmentalists who accused it of poisoning its customers, exploiting Third World countries and employing cheap labour.

Because legal aid is not available for fighting libel cases, the pair mounted their own defence in a case which has already been described by Michael Mansfield QC as "the trial of the century".

The epic courtroom drama has already been covered in a book and TV series and has its own Internet site where the leaflet has pride of place.

McDonald's has acknowledged that it will never be able to claim its costs or damages from the "unwaged" pair whose whole lives for the past three years have been taken up studying law and preparing for each day's hearing without the aid of a legal team.

In an extraordinary act of defiance after the court ruling yesterday they were handing out the same pamphlet to the crowds gathered outside the law courts, shouting: "Judge for yourselves, read the leaflets. We will not be silenced." Mr Morris said they had lost the case on a "technicality" and vowed to take their fight to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge Britain's "oppressive" libel laws.

Friends of the Earth and top campaigning barrister Mr Mansfield all threw their weight behind the two defendants.

Mr Mansfield said the outcome represented a "major victory" for Miss Steel and Mr Morris.

Chairing a news conference he said: "The British public owe a debt of gratitude to these two people. They have dared to tread where no others have dared to tread, where those with resources have not dared to go, to raise issues that matter to us all."

The judge had said McDonald's was entitled to compensation for damage to its trading reputation and goodwill, and to vindicate its good name. But Mr Justice Bell, whose whole career at the High Court has so far been taken up by the case, did not grant an injunction forbidding further publication of the leaflet. He said any further orders, including legal costs, would be dealt with at a later date.

Paul Preston, chairman and chief executive officer of McDonald's Restaurants Ltd (UK), welcomed the judgment.

He said the company was "broadly satisfied".

"For the sake of our employees and our customers we wanted to show these serious allegations to be false and I am pleased that we have done so," he said. "The fact that it has taken three years out of the lives of so many people also gives cause for concern. The length of the trial raises important issues about the cost of justice and the speed with which it can be dispensed.

"We welcome the public debate over Lord Woolf's proposals to reform the civil justice system, especially with regard to the recommendation to allow the judiciary to limit the cost and length of civil litigation."

McDonald's had made it clear from the start that it did not expect to recover any substantial damages or its massive legal costs. It was concerned to stop the campaign against it and vindicate its reputation.

In his judgment, which has taken six months to prepare and runs to 800 pages, Mr Justice Bell told a courtroom packed with the world's media and colourful environmental campaigners: "Not everyone loves McDonald's."

The leaflet was at the heart of an anti-McDonald's campaign run by London Greenpeace - which has no connection with Greenpeace International. The leaflet accused the burger chain of being responsible for starvation in the Third World; destroying vast areas of central American rainforest; serving unhealthy food that caused a real risk of cancer of the breast and bowel, heart disease and food poisoning; lying when it claimed to use recycled paper; exploiting children with its advertising and marketing; cruelty to animals and treating its employees badly.

He found on the evidence that it was not true that McDonald's were responsible for destroying rainforests with lethal poisons to provide cattle grazing and timber for its paper packaging - thus contributing to a major ecological catastrophe and wrecking the planet.

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 the UK, 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. The risk of heart disease, he said, was only true in relation to customers who ate at McDonald outlets 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. But he said that some of McDonald's promotional material claiming 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 judge upheld the claim that McDonald's advertising and marketing "makes considerable use of susceptible young children to bring in custom, both their own and that of their parents who must accompany them".

But the complaint that McDonald's promoted the consumption of their meals as a fun event when they knew full well that the contents could poison the children was not justified.

It had also been shown that laying hens, broiler chickens and some pigs were treated cruelly by being given very little room to move, at least for some part of their lives.

He said McDonald's was also "culpably responsible" for the "cruel practice" under which a small proportion of the millions of chickens slaughtered were still fully conscious when their throats were slit.

The risk of food poisoning from eating McDonald's products was minimal, said the judge, and the allegation that customers were exposed to residues of antibiotic drugs, growth promoting hormones and pesticides was not true.

On employment practices, the judge said McDonald's Restaurants did pay its workers low wages, thereby helping to depress wages in the catering trade in Britain. But it was not true that the company was only interested in recruiting cheap labour and that it exploited disadvantaged groups, particularly women and black people.

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