McLibel defendant Helen Steel on her
6-year battle with McDonald's

Helen Steel, 32, is one half of the McLibel 2. She spent 6 years locked in a legal battle with McDonald's after being sued for libel over a leaflet critical of the company. The trial became 'McLibel' - the biggest corporate PR disaster in history - and spawned endless press articles, TV programmes, books and websites. She is currently trying to get her life back together.

Helen Steel was interviewed in 1997 by One-Off Productions for their TV documentary, McLibel: Two Worlds Collide.

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Could you tell us a bit about what you were doing before this case?

Before we got the writs I was involved in London Greenpeace and in a few other groups as well. Various different campaigns; around housing, against the Poll Tax, environmental campaigns, animal rights, supporting strikers - all sorts of struggles for a better world basically! I was also doing paid and unpaid work as a minibus driver for various community groups - pensioners, children and so on.

How did you first get involved in any sort of campaign?

Well, since I was quite young I've been interested in environmental issues. Then when I was at comprehensive school I decided I wanted to study agriculture, and me and my best friend had to fight to get on the course cos girls weren't allowed to do it. We had to find boys who would swap with us and do home economics instead. It was a very interesting course and I really enjoyed it, but towards the end we made visits to slaughterhouses and really what I saw there was so horrific that I decided that I wanted to become a vegetarian and that I didn't want to be involved in the death of animals. I still thought at that time that I could do dairy farming or eggs, or things like that, but as I learnt more, I discovered the cruelty involved in the battery egg system and the dairy industry and so I became a vegan a couple of years after that.

How did you first get involved in London Greenpeace?

My first real involvement with London Greenpeace was in 1987 when the re-enactment of the First Fleet sailing to Australia took place and there were protests against the bicentennial celebrations and in support of Aboriginal land rights. Some people who were involved in that were involved in London Greenpeace, so I started going to a few London Greenpeace meetings at that time, to get involved in that. But it wasn't really until 1988 that I started going to meetings on a regular basis and getting more involved in the groups activities.

What sort of things was the group doing at that time?

There were campaigns against the IMF/World Bank, against State borders, one to encourage traffic free communities, there was a focus on Unilever - the food and soapstuff multinational - for a time and then obviously there was the anti-McDonald's campaign. But also London Greenpeace is really a sort-of informal network, so people would come along to meetings and bring up political events organised by others, that people in London Greenpeace might be interested in. My particular interest at the time was the campaign against the International Monetary Fund/ World Bank. I went over to Berlin for the demonstrations against the IMF congress that was being held there, and there was a counter-congress organised by people in Germany to put forward alternatives to the IMF and alternative ways of running society.

How did London Greenpeace operate?

It was basically an informal, open collective - anybody was welcome to come along and could get involved with any of the activities organised by the group. There were no positions of power - no chair, no person dishing out orders - 'you've got to do this, you've got to do that'. You didn't even have to agree with everything that other people in the group were interested in doing, different people would be involved with different campaigns. In fact, that was what I liked about the group cos a lot of political groups you have to agree with all the aims and principles, and you have to agree to do everything that the group decides to do, but it wasn't like that with London Greenpeace - you could get as involved as you wanted to, or just sit quiet if you wanted to. I mean obviously it's better if people participate to some extent, but you didn't have to take part in every issue.

Where did the McDonald's campaign fit in?

The LGP Anti-McDonald's campaign was up and going before I ever got involved in the group and ironically myself and Dave weren't involved with the running of it. It was set up to encourage people to challenge the way that society is currently run with people, animals and the environment being exploited for the benefit of a minority of the population (executives & shareholders of multinationals, banks etc) and to put forward positive alternatives.

It was dark and as I stepped from the van there was a guy standing in front of me and he said 'Helen?'. I didn't say anything cos I didn't know who he was, and he just threw this envelope at my feet

I think McDonald's were chosen because they have a particularly high profile, with their perpetual advertising which is forced on us all, and people felt there was a need to counter the mass of propaganda the company puts out trying to convince us that they're a benefit to society. It turned out to be a very popular campaign in terms of public response, lots of letters came in asking for information about McDonald's. I think it really struck a chord with a lot of people who were fed up with litter all over their streets and fed up with their friends and themselves going in to low-paid, dead end jobs, where they were bossed around and so on... There were letters coming in from around the world - all different countries, with people talking about campaigns against McDonald's in their area, or other fast-food outlets as well.

By the time I was really involved with London Greenpeace, the campaign had in fact gone from something initiated by London Greenpeace to being much more run by local groups all over the world. Lots of different local groups particularly in England were organising pickets of McDonald's and regularly distributing leaflets, whereas with London Greenpeace, although it had initiated the campaign it was maybe only doing one or two things a year in terms of pickets or protests against McDonald's.

Did you know of any other groups campaigning against McDonald's before London Greenpeace?

I think there had been lots of groups campaigning against McDonald's around the world on specific issues like rainforests, low pay, animal welfare. Groups in the States and in Australia were campaigning on the rainforest issue, there were trade unions campaigning against McDonald's hostility to trade unions, There were nutritionists, criticising McDonald's for their promotion of junk food. Animal rights campaigners complaining about the way animals were reared and slaughtered. But it was London Greenpeace which really drew all the criticisms together to take a look at the overall effect that multinationals have on the planet, and it became a worldwide campaign against a major multinational on all the issues.

Who wrote the Factsheet? Did you?

The Factsheet that we're being sued over was actually written a couple of years before I got involved in the group and I never met the person who wrote it.

How was it distributed?

Well, sometime before I got involved in the group there had been a decision that because of the size of the leaflet, because it was six sides of A5 all folded up, it was too long to be handed out on the street. Partly because people wouldn't tend to bother to read it all on the streets, and also because London Greenpeace was always virtually broke and couldn't afford be reprinting a really long, expensive leaflet. In fact the factsheet was actually out of print before McDonald's served the writs on us. Their own private investigators had reported that the office had run out of copies. There were various A5 version which were the ones used for mass distribution on the streets. But also London Greenpeace didn't really print leaflets for other people anyway, it always encouraged people to print their own. Veggies in Nottingham were the main distributors of literature for handing out. They printed the factsheets and other leaflets in bulk and sent them out to groups around the country.

Did you ever distribute it?

I don't think I've ever handed out the Factsheet. I've been on - particularly since the writs were served - a lot of Anti-McD's demonstrations and pickets and I've handed out a lot of A5 leaflets detailing McDonald's practices, but I don't think I've ever actually handed out the Factsheet.

Tell us about McDonald's spies.

About a year before the writs were served on us this guy turned up at the meetings who didn't quite seem to fit in. He didn't really say that much about what his politics were, what his particular interests were, although he did say that he was against fast-food. There was something about him that didn't seem quite right, but at the time we just thought 'well, you know, maybe he's a policeman, but we're not doing anything wrong, or illegal or anything, so well, why worry about it?

A group can't work if it's continually suspicious about everybody who's coming to meetings so people just got on with it. Some of the other investigators that were sent along I was suspicious of at the time too, including one of the women, they must have an air about them! But there were a couple that didn't raise any suspicions with me, and if they hadn't been revealed by the evidence in the case I'd be none the wiser.

McDonald's have now admitted that they had 7 private detectives infiltrating London Greenpeace. A couple of them admitted taking letters sent to the group, to copy them for McDonald's files. One of them broke into the group's office using a phone card to swipe the lock. Another one reported that the office window had no security lock on it. So he was obviously of the same mind, cos what's the point of reporting that otherwise? They got heavily involved in the group and have admitted distributing anti McDonald's leaflets, including the factsheet we were sued over.

There was a woman called Shelley who started coming to meetings and was regularly attending pickets of McDonald in North London and distributing anti-McD's leaflets. She came on the picket of McDonald's Head Office and was handing out leaflets there. She had a relationship with somebody in the group, which is.. just completely disgusting. I was actually suspicious of her at the time because she seemed over keen, ridiculously keen but as I say you can't work if you're suspicious of everybody who is involved, but it did turn out later that she was working for McDonald's while she was doing all these things.

How does it make you feel, looking back on it?

Well, I think it's a gross abuse of the trusting, open nature of the group, and I think it's outrageous that companies like McDonald's go to such lengths to try to protect the image that they've manufactured for themselves. But I guess it shows how desperate they were feeling about all the criticism flying at them.

Is there any come-back for the spies?

We made an application to join three of the spies as co-defendants, and the basis for that was two of them admitted sending out copies of the Factsheet in answer to letters that had been written into the group and then the other one has admitted distributing the Factsheet when he was working on a stall at a benefit. McDonald's case against me and Dave was basically that we were at meetings where the campaign was discussed and they said that I handed out leaflets outside their Head Office in 1989. Their own witnesses... their own private investigators were actually admitting that they handed out the Factsheet, so they were far more involved than myself and Dave really.

There was something about him that didn't seem quite right, but at the time we just thought 'well, you know, maybe he's a policeman, but we're not doing anything wrong, or illegal or anything, so well, why worry about it?

Also nearly two years after the trial started McDonald's applied to change their case. Whereas previously they had pleaded that we had caused distribution of the Factsheet on 6 specific dates, they now changed their case to say that we were responsible for all distribution of the Factsheet whensoever and wheresoever it had occurred between 1987 and 1990, and obviously, seeing as at least some of that distribution was carried out by their own private investigators, why should we be liable to McDonald's for something that was done by their own agents. It's ridiculous.

What did you think of McDonald's before you got the writs?

I thought they were just one of many multinationals that are exploiting people and animals and damaging the environment in their endless quest for profits. Obviously after we got the writs it became a lot more personal and I became determined that I wasn't going to be silenced by their bullying tactics and that the public would hear the truth about their practices rather than just the glossy image propaganda that the company puts out.

How did you get the writ?

The writs were served on us in September 1990. I'd just got a lift from a friend, back to his house. It was dark and as I stepped from the van there was a guy standing in front of me and he said 'Helen?'. I didn't say anything cos I didn't know who he was, and he just threw this envelope at my feet, and then I picked it up and opened it, and it was the writ.

It really felt like a big intrusion into my personal life at the time because, obviously they'd followed me there... or they must have followed me there on a previous occasion to be waiting for me as I got out of the van, so it felt pretty horrible that I'd been followed around.

Did you have any immediate reaction as to what you were going to do?

It was just like: what do we do? I didn't know anything about libel laws, I don't think I even knew what libel was. I mean I had probably heard of it somewhere, on some TV... news coverage or something, but never really known what it was. In with the writ was a letter from McDonald's solicitors saying that they'd taken out this writ and that there'd be a court case unless we apologised. And certainly straight away I thought 'Well I've got nothing to apologise for', but obviously not knowing anything about libel, we needed to get legal advice.

We went to see some lawyers and the options were explained, like we could either fight the case or we could apologise. Basically the lawyers said that the libel laws are extremely complex, that it is really difficult to fight a case as a defendant at the best of times because the onus is on you to prove everything, and not just with books and films and pamphlets and so on, but with witnesses and with first hand accounts. They said that it's very costly to fight a libel action, that there's no legal aid for libel and that if, as in our situation, you didn't have any money and you had no legal experience the very difficult battle of defending a libel action would be made almost impossible. Effectively you would be banging your head against a brick wall.

Their advice was really; you're on a hiding to nothing, because of all the odds being stacked against you, you're probably better off apologising and getting on with some other campaign. Not because anyone thought there was anything wrong with the leaflet, but just because of the difficulties involved in fighting a case.

It was quite likely that we wouldn't be able to comply with all the pre-trial procedures, you've got various documents you've got to fill out - pleadings and so on - and without legal representation that's very hard to do. And your case could get thrown out before even getting to trial. So, the issues wouldn't even get a proper airing. All the time you're running up costs, McDonald's legal bill would be going up really rapidly. And eventually the other 3 people who'd got the writs felt that they didn't really have any choice but to apologise because of the odds being stacked against us and because we'd been told that we could be bankrupted without even getting a full hearing.

It's a matter of free speech and if there's a genuine body of opinion that believes that something is true then you should be able to say it.

But it just really stuck in my throat to apologise for something that didn't deserve an apology so, even though we were being told that it was a virtually impossible battle I just thought, well I'm going to fight this case come what may, whether or not I manage to comply with all the obligations and actually get as far as a trial. Dave had a lot of domestic problems at the time - looking after his partner and very young son who'd both been injured in an accident, so he didn't have a lot of time to fight a case. He said he'd go with the flow - if everyone thought that there was no option but to apologise. But when I said there was no way I would apologise he said he'd come in and fight it with me, which is just as well really, I don't think I would have made it through the whole case on my own.

How well did you know Dave?

I've known Dave since the early 80s. We've both been involved since that time in various political and community groups in Haringey. We hitch-hiked up to a mining village during the 1984 miners strike to support the strikers, and we were both involved local campaigns for decent homes for all, anti-traffic actions, the local campaign against the Poll Tax.

How did things progress with the case?

Well, when we first got the writs, we didn't know anything at all about libel. Gradually we learnt more and more but we never realised it was going to take this long in court. I mean, even 6 months before the trial started, McDonald's QC Richard Rampton had been saying that the trial would only last 3 or 4 weeks, and I was actually living in Yorkshire at the time, and I thought 'well that's okay I'll just come down for a month to fight the case'. But as time went on it became obvious that the trial was going to take quite a lot longer than that and also that I needed to be in London for all the pre-trial hearings and procedures, so I moved back down. But even then, I still had no idea that it was going to go on for over 2 years. We thought at that stage that maybe it would take 3 or 4 months.

People ask whether or not we would have fought the case if we'd known how long it was going to take. And if when we'd got the writs someone had said to me 'you'll still be fighting this case in 6 years time' I think it would have been really daunting and I would probably have had a serious think about whether or not I was going to fight it. But at the end of the day we didn't have much choice, there was no way I was going to apologise for something that just didn't deserve an apology. So I think we would have had to say 'yeah, we'll see it through' even if it does take that length of time.

At what stage did you realise that it was really McDonald's on trial and what a unique position you were in?

Normally if you're campaigning against a multinational or trying to expose what they're doing, everything's kept under wraps, and if you ever get to speak to anyone it's a PR person and they can just trot out their glib answers and avoid any serious discussion about what they're doing and what the effects are. Whereas when you've got an executive in the witness box, they can't walk away - they HAVE to answer your questions. So it is a unique opportunity to get information about the inner workings of a huge multinational company out into the open. So in that respect we are quite lucky.

What has the pressure from the media been like?

I'm normally quite a private person, and I actually find it quite hard talking to the media, particularly on film and on radio - it's not so bad talking to journalists for newspapers, although even that I find hard work. Dave's good at it tho and I feel like.. if I don't agree to be interviewed its a typical stereotype of the man's doing all the talking. So I've really felt like I've had to make an effort to talk to the media even though I'm not very keen on it.

Its quite strange cos people sort of say 'you must be alright talking to the media or speaking at public meetings, cos you have to do all that speaking in court'. Its odd, but I don't feel inhibited or awkward about speaking there... maybe its just because we've been there for 2 years and I've got used to it. Before the trial started we had 28 pre-trial hearings so although initially we were nervous speaking at them we got used to speaking front of judges and QCs and by the time the trial started I felt fairly OK about it.

Do you appreciate the power you have in terms of getting the issues across to the public?

It's also been a unique opportunity to get all the issues in the case over to the public, with the amount of media interest that there's been. Effectively that's the best weapon we've got against McDonald's trying to censor the whole campaign through its use of libel writs - it's to turn the tables and get more publicity for the issues, and also to encourage people to have confidence in standing up for their beliefs and ideas.

I think, providing they had the same sort of backing as we did, that anybody else could've fought the case

Has the media in general focused on the right aspects?

One of the frustrating things about the media coverage is that it has tended to focus on what we're wearing and inane things like that, rather than really putting across the issues that the case is about. It's particularly frustrating when you spend a couple of hours talking to a journalist about all the issues in the case, and then two weeks later you see the article and its just stuff about your haircut, or what jumper you've got on, or whether or not you wear makeup - just sort of really tedious stuff that's totally irrelevant... what difference does it make what you're wearing?

Why did McDonalds try and withdraw all the transcripts? What was their real motive?

Before the trail started McDonalds said that they would provide us with daily court transcripts for the whole trial. They were getting them produced for themselves and they said that in the interests of fairness that we should have a copy as well. About a year into the trial they withdrew the transcripts and said that they would only let us have copies if we gave an undertaking not to show them to... anybody really, but in particular they didn't want us to show them to anybody in the media. And the whole point of it was just to stop people hearing all the information that was coming out at the trial. The information about the inner workings of the company that they'd tried to keep under wraps for so long. Effectively they were trying to blackmail us, because they knew it makes a big difference to how you're able to fight the case, whether or not you've got the transcripts. We weren't in a position where we could take notes because it's really hard to take comprehensive notes and at the same time cross-examine a witness. So they thought that we'd be forced to giving this undertaking and effectively gag ourselves, but obviously we weren't prepared to do that.

Do you think there's an element of the fact that you were winning, and they didn't want that to come out?

I think the main reason why they didn't want us to have the transcripts unless we gave an undertaking not to show them to anybody was because there was so much evidence that was coming out in our favour, proving the criticisms right that had been made in the factsheet and McDonald were desperate to stop the public hearing about that.

Could you speak in court right from the beginning?

Well, before the trial started we had 28 pre-trial hearings so although initially we were nervous speaking at them we got used to speaking front of judges and QCs and by the time the trial started I felt fairly OK about it.

Do you respect the traditions of the court?

We show the judge respect as another human being, but in terms of deferring to him or to anyone else in the court, we don't really believe in that. Its quite funny cos the transcripts sometimes say that me or Dave has said 'something, something, my Lord' and we've never once said 'my Lord' cos we don't believe in deferring to him. Why should he have the right to decide whether or not people can hand out information critical about McDonald's?

So if you don't believe in the justice system, why have you joined in?

The legal advice we were given at the time presented us with two options, neither of which was all that attractive. We did consider a third option at the time which was just to say to McDonald's 'We don't recognise your right to try and stop us handing out leaflets which we believe are true, "do your worst"'. And that might have been a good option. I think it would have been better for us personally because we wouldn't have had to go through a completely exhausting court battle, but I don't think it would have been as effective because hardly anybody would have heard about it and therefore hardly anybody would have got to hear about the issues. I mean that is one brilliant thing that has come out of this case, which is that so many of the issues have got a much wider airing than they would normally get and so millions more people have got to hear about what McDonald's and other multinationals are up to.

What has this trial taught you about the British judicial system?

I think it has shown clearly that the legal system does nothing to protect the interests of the ordinary person on the street. We faced a continual battle during pre-trial hearings just to get the Judges to listen to us, normal procedures were overturned to protect McDonald's, then we were denied a jury trial. From the word go we've not really expected a fair trial, it's just impossible because of the complete imbalance of resources. When the case started McDonald's were a 24 billion dollar a year company and we were unwaged. I'm now working, but I'm still only earning sixty four pounds a week so there's still a massive imbalance. As the case has progressed the other disadvantages we face as litigants in person have become more and more apparent. A major one is that barristers - because they've got the same kind of background and education, the Judges will believe almost everything they say, whereas with a litigant in person they just think 'Well you don't know what you're talking about, you've got no experience of the law, I can't really take much notice of what you're saying.'

I think that the libel laws in this country are designed to protect the interests of wealthy and powerful organisations and to ensure that their critics are kept quiet. And the judge is part of that. He actually said to us at one point 'Well, whether you like it or not we're living in a capitalist society", as if to say don't bother trying to challenge the way things are.

What's the most important issue to you personally?

To me all the issues are equally important - they're all things that I feel strongly about. Although in a way the advertising angle particularly gets to me but that's mainly because of the ridiculous hype, the way they put themselves over as though they're something great for the whole world and the way they continually push their junk food products.

Which was the most difficult issue to get to grips with?

The hardest issue to get evidence on has been the rainforest issue because all the people who are first hand witnesses - they're all the other side of the world. Tracking down who owns land where, and who's doing the destroying of forests and that. You really need to fly someone out to Costa Rica and Brazil and places like that to interview people first hand and get down their experiences and obviously at the time that we needed to do that we didn't have enough money. Despite not being able to fly someone over and interview everybody that's available in the field, we've still managed to make contact with quite a lot of experts who've worked extensively in Brazil and Costa Rica as well and they've confirmed that some of the areas where McDonald's get their beef from are former rainforest areas - some of them deforested within the last 20 or so years.

Were there any scientific concepts that you couldn't get your head round?

McDonald's argued that we shouldn't have a jury because the issue were too complicated for members of the public to understand. We've got to be able to understand all the issues - and if we've got to understand it, why can't a jury understand it? I think that partly in order to justify the denial of a jury, McDonald's have tried to make the nutrition issue more complicated than it really is - I mean the World Health Organisation and the UK government's Health Education Authority are putting out pamphlets here and now, and have been for the past decade, saying that people should cut down on the fat in their diet, and eat more fibre, and so on, in order to cut down on their risk of getting heart disease and cancer. And if bodies such as they are making those statements, making the links between diet and ill-health, why shouldn't campaigners be able to put that in their leaflets?

if when we'd got the writs someone had said to me 'you'll still be fighting this case in 6 years time' I think it would have been really daunting

Whether or not you can call some top expert to prove it conclusively is irrelevant. It's a matter of free speech and if there's a genuine body of opinion that believes that something is true then you should be able to say it.

We've been very lucky really because all the experts who have come forward to give evidence on our behalf have done so for free because they believe that there are important issues at stake. Normally expert witnesses are paid a fee to do a report and they'd be paid for attending court. So, if you aren't legally aided, which obviously you can't be in a libel case cos there is no legal aid for libel, and you haven't got resources of your own, how are you supposed to get these top experts to give evidence on your behalf?

You know, we have been very lucky in that people have been willing to come forward and give evidence for free. Despite the fact that all the experts that have given evidence on our behalf are all very busy people, they obviously felt that it's completely wrong for a multinational company to be able to use its financial muscle and legal advantage to try and prevent people making raising concerns about diet, the environment etc and that's why they've come forward and give evidence on these issues.

How have you got on with these witnesses?

All the witnesses have been really great people and although some of them are from very different walks of life and people that we wouldn't normally come across we have got on really well with them. It's been a really good experience to get the opportunity to meet all these people.

What's a day in the life of a McLibel defendant like?

Well, a typical day is getting up at 7 in the morning, sometimes at 6 if it's a particularly complicated witness coming up, doing some preparation for the witness. I meet Dave at the tube station about half past nine. We get down to court and court starts at about ten thirty, carry on cross examining the witness or getting the witness to give their evidence in chief til four thirty with an hour break in the middle for lunch. We get the tube back to Turnpike Lane and then we go our separate ways go home and I do some more preparation til about midnight. Then go to bed completely exhausted.......laughs ...... And I'll speak to Dave on the phone but generally we don't do any kind of preparation together unless there's something we really need to discuss then we'll meet up. But otherwise we'll ask each other questions on the phone about who's doing what or else we chat about it to or from court when we are on the tube.

Do you get to do any socialising?

For about the first 3 or 4 months of the trial I basically was doing nothing else except the trial. But it got to a point where I felt like I was going a bit mad thinking about McDonald's non-stop and I felt like I did need to get out and see people. And also when we realised that the trial wasn't going to be over in 3 or 4 months I realised it was just not realistic to not see people for that length of time, so I made more of an effort to get out and see people. But that in turn meant that I wasn't able to do all the stuff that needed to be done for the case. I think though that even if I hadn't visited friends from time to time I still wouldn't have been able to do all the stuff for the case.

It's really an impossible task to keep up with everything that needs doing. McDonald have got two barristers in court, they've always got at least one solicitor in court, quite often two.... they've got a whole team back at the solicitors office that send out the letters, make the arrangements for getting witnesses to court and just generally do administration things like photocopying, filing and so on. There's even someone to carry all of Rampton's bags and files into court. So McDonald's team have got about 8 people doing all the jobs that me and Dave are doing between us and on top of that we've also got to organise our home lives, you know, like Dave's got his son to look after. Rampton particularly, and often the Judge, would say we'd had plenty of time to prepare, but they forgot (or ignored) just how much we had to do on our own, and I bet they had someone doing their cooking, cleaning and shopping for them. It was a complete nightmare keeping it all going.

Have you had much support?

The support we've had from the public has been amazing, there have been continuous letters and every time there's an article in the papers we get a flood more letters wishing us well, sending in donations to keep the case going and so on. And that's really what's given us the strength to carry on. It's not a personal battle between Dave and me and McDonald's, it's about all campaigners for justice and a fairer world, against multinational companies and those who want to just make their profits by walking all over others.

Have you and Dave done this all on your own?

We would never have been able to fight this case on our own. In the first place we had to have help from Keir Starmer, who's a barrister, who enabled us to get through the initial stages when we had absolutely no idea of what we were supposed to be doing. There are other legal people who've helped us from time to time along the way. There's the thousands of people who've sent in donations that have enabled us to pay witnesses fares and all the running costs of fighting the case (photocopying, phone bills etc). There's all the people who've helped with the support campaign, especially Dan who co-ordinates it, which has meant that people have actually heard what's going on with the case and the information that's coming out of the case. There's no way we could have fought the case on our own.

Have you been getting much help from legal people?

There've been a lot of people who have come forward and they have been willing to help us because they are concerned about the implications of the case. But it's been limited because quite a lot of them don't actually have any libel experience and it tends to be the one's who have libel experience are very busy lawyers and so the advice we have been able to get has been quite sporadic and we quite often have to go to different people, which makes it difficult in terms of continuity. None of the people who have been helping us with legal advice have read all the papers in the case or even you know, any great number of the papers in the case. There are about forty thousand pages of documents and statements and even Keir Starmer, who has given us the most help and without whom we would never have got to court, has only read a tiny fraction of all the papers. So we've had no real help with questions to ask in cross examination or day to day things like that. The only things we have been able to get legal advice for really are specific legal issues like when McDonald's blanked out large sections of the documents they disclosed to us and we challenged that, or for example when we made an application to join the spies as defendants we got legal advice for that.

Do you think anybody else could have done it?

I think me and Dave are both pretty determined but we haven't got special skills in how to cross-examine witnesses or how to put together a case, it's all just what we've learnt along the way. So I think, providing they had the same sort of backing as we did, that anybody else could've fought the case.

Are you heroes?

Well from time to time people have suggested that we're heroes, that's most definitely not how we see ourselves. We just think that we were put in this situation, we didn't have a lot of choice about what we were going to do, and to fight the case was something that needed to be done, McDonald's needed to be stood up to. I think anyone could have fought this case and it just happened to be us that got the writs We weren't going to apologise so the only option was to fight the case. I think that lots of people would have done exactly the same.

How have you and Dave worked as a team?

I think its worked pretty well. Although our politics are pretty similar and we view McDonald's in much the same way, we seemed to think differently to each other and approach things in different ways, so we've kind of complemented each other in court. We prepared our questions for witnesses by ourselves and didn't really confer til on the way to court, then we found that we'd mostly thought of different questions, but all of them were useful points which needed to be explored. So we nearly doubled the effectiveness. >From time to time we have our differences but at the end of the day there's a job to be done, and we both feel very strongly about all the issues in the case and that's what important. You don't have to agree 100% on every single thing in order to get things done. I think it's only natural that people would have disagreements, particularly in a case as intensive and stressful as this, but you have to remember the overall picture and think about that rather than focusing on minor differences which could paralyse you if you let them.

Do you ever manage to get away from McDonald's?

During the summer last year I really felt like I needed to get away from the case and get away from McDonald's as well and I went up to Scotland. I climbed up Ben Lomond one day and when I got to the top there was this guy there wearing a T-shirt it was kind of like a take-off of the Flintstones, it had like a Flintstones McDonald's with a sign saying 'Billions and billions served'. As it happened I just had 3 ‘What's Wrong With McDonald's?' leaflets on me and I handed him a copy and it was quite funny really 'cos he said 'Oh, I don't even like them, it's just a T-shirt.'. But it's quite incredible, you go to the top of a mountain - it was the last place I expected to be reminded of McDonald's - and you can't even get away from them up there.

I'd like to see a world where people have control of their own lives and communities rather than being dictated to by the wants of government and big business

Tell us about the settlement meeting.

After just five weeks of the trial Shelby Yastrow and Dick Starmann from McDonald Corporation flew over from The States to meet with us to try and put an end to the case, basically cos they were obviously coming under a lot of stick for it and getting a lot of bad publicity and they knew it wasn't going to get any better for them. Shelby Yastrow, is Senior Counsel of the McDonald Corporation and they're both vice-presidents and it seemed quite funny that they'd flown all the way over to England just to speak to us - two campaigners. We took it as a sign of just how scared they were about the whole case.

We told them our pre-conditions for them to get out of the case; we wanted an undertaking that they wouldn't sue anybody for any similar criticisms. This was the one I was most concerned about because I just felt I don't want them to be able to pull out of this case and then do the same to other people, and other people have to go through five years of exhaustion and stress and what have you, fighting a case. The second condition was that they should apologise to all the people who they've falsely forced into giving apologies to them in the past. The other condition was that they should make a donation to a third party organisation, charity, or whatever in lieu of our costs that we've spent on fighting the case so far.

For their part McDonald's wanted us to agree not to publicly criticise them again in the future, to effectively totally gag us and obviously there was no way we were going to agree to that. They were prepared to make a substantial payment to a third party organisation, in lieu of our costs.

Well, we certainly weren't going to agree to their demands. The whole reason we were fighting the case was to defend the right to criticise them and other multinationals, so we were hardly going to agree to gag ourselves. After the meeting there were a couple of letters, but I think they were worried about losing face if it got out in the open and so the whole thing just died down.

Did they come across as humans? Could you have you liked them in another situation?

No. (laughs)

What were they like as people?

I didn't like them as people, they seemed like typical slimy corporate executives, who I think treated us like we were really gullible or something. They wrote a letter to us saying that while they didn't want us to criticise them publicly, of course they didn't want to curtail our right to freedom of speech - they wouldn't stop us from having private conversations critical of McDonald's. It was a joke. We wrote them back a letter saying we would consider that if they agreed not to run any more advertisements about McDonald and said 'of course this agreement wouldn't prevent you from privately recommending McDonald's to your friends and neighbours'. They didn't reply to that one.

Do you think any of the McDonald's people you've been involved with in the case ever really cared about the issues or took seriously any of the criticisms? Or were they just interested in looking after the image of the company?

I don't really remember any of their witnesses coming over as particularly sincere in their beliefs about the issues - caring for the environment or any of the other issues. As far as I could see they just all seemed to be out to do whatever it was that was necessary to keep the profits coming in, and if it meant responding to their environmental critics by bringing in recycled bags they would do that, just so that their business didn't stop.

Have you had any spare time for campaigning on other issues?

For the first sort of six or eight months of the trial. I wasn't doing anything else. And then it got to the sort of stage where just felt I was going round the twist continuously thinking about McDonald's and that there were lots of other issues that I felt were just as important and I didn't want to give up on them all. So I got a bit more back into getting involved in other struggles. In particular about a year and a half into the trial there was a strike started about two miles down the road from where I live, of fast food distribution workers, totally unconnected to McDonald's. They were locked out after joining a union to try and improve conditions. They were having early morning pickets starting at five thirty in the morning, so I went down and joined in on the picket line before going to court at ten thirty.

Did that have any effect on the McLibel case?

Well although I was doing it to show solidarity with the strikers it actually had a beneficial effect on me. It meant that was more time when I wasn't actually thinking about McDonald's and believe me it does get mind-numbing thinking about McDonald's the whole time. It was also good to get back into real life. Often the court room would seem miles away from reality, with ludicrous discussions over whether it was ok to call £3 an hour a low wage for example, and it was good to be surrounded by ordinary people without all that kind of pretence.

If you weren't on the pickets you would have been sleeping, wouldn't you?

Spending all day thinking about McDonald's...., it had the effect on me of.... I ended up dreaming about them as well which was really horrible, I mean it was more like nightmares. So getting up at five thirty in the morning was probably quite a relief!

How do you support yourself?

After about a year of the trial I got a job working in a night-club, behind the bar. I work two nights a week, Friday and Saturday nights, so Fridays I would come home from court and then go out to work a couple of hours later. I get paid about sixty four pounds a week. One good side effect was that because I was serving drinks all the time I didn't have time to think about McDonald's. It was quite a release.

Why has the case taken so long?

The reason the case took so long is because we were being forced to prove basic common sense view points on a wide range of issues. I think the employment section in the case really highlights how ridiculous the whole case is. To me the judge should have thrown out McDonald's case as soon as they admitted that their workers start at or within a few pence of the minimum wage. The judge should have just said 'well anyone's entitled to call the minimum wage low pay that's the end of it, we don't need any more evidence on that'. Instead of that we sat through eight months of evidence on employment.

What's so wrong about working at McDonald's?

McDonald's make over a billion dollars profit every year, and could quite easily afford to pay all their workers a lot more money. They manage to pay their executives huge sums, so why not pay the workers a decent wage.

McDonald's designed their system basically so that anybody can do the work. It doesn't take very long to train someone to flip hamburgers or what have you, and that means really that they can have a production line of workers. They don't have to worry about paying decent wages to encourage the workers to stay longer or anything like that cos they can just replace them the next day.

Yeah, but people need the money.

I used to work in a supermarket and the attitude there was the same. They'd tell you to stay on late without giving you any notice and they wouldn't be paying you extra pay for it. I think that McDonald's and supermarkets and so on, they just they just treat workers like bits of machinery instead of human beings. They don't treat you as though you had any feelings or you deserved any respect, you're just a means to them making their profits.

When you had the option in front of you, there must have been some part of you thinking well it would be easy to apologise?

Well, there have been times when I've really wished that we didn't take the case on and that we didn't have to fight it, didn't have to go to court every day. But I think that those feelings are not nearly as strong as the feelings I'd have if I had apologised. I think I'd be pretty sick with myself really.

The whole point of fighting the case is to defend the right to criticise multinational companies and to make sure that their business practices are open to public scrutiny and debate. They're all really important issues - how people are treated in the workplace, the kind of diet being promoted to more and more people, environmental damage, how animals are exploited. I think it's vital that people feel able to talk about all these issues without the fear of some multinational company breathing down their neck, threatening a libel case.

So what else have you learnt in general terms, what has this trial told you about the British justice system?

I think the trial has just confirmed that the British justice system exists really to protect the interests of wealthy people and powerful organisations, to ensure that they can carry on making their profits and to try and prevent ordinary people from challenging or criticising what's going on.

Under what circumstances would you stop campaigning against McDonald's?

If all the McDonald's in the world where turned into community centres where people could drop in and cook their own food and share it with people and share their experiences then I guess that would be OK (laughs), but I don't think they'd really be interested in doing that because they wouldn't make any profits from it.

Is it really McDonald's you're fighting? Do you really care that much about one company?

I think McDonald's are just a symbol of what's wrong with the way society is run. Basically people, animals and the environment are seen as the means for a minority to make their profits. McDonald's are not really any worse than any of the other companies it's just that they've got a very high profile. They spend millions of pounds every year advertising - trying to push the idea that they're somehow something great for the world. That's why they were chosen as the subject of criticism by London Greenpeace and then obviously when they sued us you know, it was a matter of defiance, and not giving in to their threats.

Believe me it does get mind-numbing thinking about McDonald's the whole time

And what do you and Dave symbolise, do you think?

I think me and Dave are just ordinary people, there's millions of people around the world standing up to repression and exploitation wherever it occurs, and we're just part of that.

So what would this world be like?

Well we're really a part of a struggle for a world based on co-operation and sharing. I'd like to see a world where people have control of their own lives and communities rather than being dictated to by the wants of government and big business. Where people make decisions within their own communities about things that affect their lives rather than having things imposed on them by people in distant places. And where the environment and animals are treated with respect.

Don't you think the fundamental selfishness of human nature would not allow this to work?

I don't think people are fundamentally selfish. I think there are a few people - generally people who are in charge of companies who rake in millions of pounds of profit, who are selfish, but I think the vast majority of ordinary people actually care a lot about their friends, neighbours and relatives and even strangers and don't want to see them suffering or going without. We have to remember that there is actually quite a lot in this world to go round, its just that at present it's all concentrated in the hands of a small minority of people. That makes people anxious for their future and more anxious about hanging on to what they've got. Also constant advertising and hype encourages us to want things that we don't really need. But if food and resources were shared equally and we had strong communities I don't think there'd be that level of anxiety.

But if we created a world that was all sharing then it would be ripe for exploitation from the others, surely?

I think the selfish minority have to realise that ultimately they can't carry on the way that they are and that it's in everybody's interests to share the world's resources and use them responsibly. It's not easy, but it's up to communities to decide how they want to deal with somebody who's being greedy and trying to take everything for themselves. You can't really make a decision here and now when you've got no knowledge about the particular circumstances.

So what's the next step now? The first steps towards that?

I think the first thing is to encourage people to recognise their own strength and to stand up for what they believe in. I think the vast majority of people are sickened by and opposed to injustice and oppression, and they don't want to see it going on. But it's just a lot of the time people aren't really sure how they can fight it. We're persuaded to put our trust in politicians and directors and the like and leave it to them. They're the ones that are in charge now and have created the mess, they're not going to get us out of it. Or else we're encouraged to believe that everything will be alright in the afterlife if we just pray hard enough now. Why wait for the afterlife that might never come?

We need to get together with friends, neighbours, workmates and others in our community and start working to create heaven on earth now! Taking control of our workplaces, streets and communities. Supporting and looking out for each other, reclaiming land, growing our own food and sharing it. That kind of stuff really. In the meantime, leafleting is a good way of making links and spreading ideas.

See also:

  • RealAudio interview with Helen
  • Helen's witness statement
  • Helen's CV (sort of)
  • Everything you could possibly want to know about the McLibel Trial