McDonald's spy Fran Tiller on infiltration
and subterfuge, Big Mac style

Fran Tiller is now a secretary studying to become a nutritional medicine practitioner. In the late 80s and early 90s she was one of at least seven people employed by two private investigation firms (who were in turn employed by McDonald's) to infiltrate the activist group London Greenpeace. The information the spies gave to the corporation led to the serving of libel writs on 5 members of the group, which led to the McLibel Trial.

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

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How did you become a spy for McDonald's? What was your role in the London Greenpeace meetings in the '80s?

I'd been made redundant from a job that I liked very much - working for a newspaper - and I was looking for another job that was sort of difference and excitement. I got a job working for the managing director of an investigation agency, as his personal assistant. It was a very small firm, and this job came up with McDonald's, and he didn't really have enough investigators, I think, so he asked me if I would fulfil that role as well.

So I said yes and I went along to some of their meetings, just as a sort of prospective member, somebody interested, and sat in, and my job, my role was actually to notice everything that was happening - where it was being held, describe the place that it was being held in, the people who were there, what they were wearing, what their names were, and everything that was said, and in particular everything that was said in relation to McDonald's. And when I left each time that I attended a meeting I would jot down very quickly as best I could remember, everything that took place. Make out a report, give it to the managing director of the investigation agency and from that he would make up a report which he would send to McDonald's, who was the client.

Just go along, attend the meeting, notice as much as you can, write it all down afterwards and take a special note of anything mentioned in relation to McDonald's.

Was it hard to pretend to be someone you're not?

It was very, very hard. Yes. It's very difficult to explain actually. You go in there and you're playing a role, you're trying to be very natural and talk to people and not blow your cover, so to speak. At the same time you're trying to notice everything that's happening, and in fact I came away after every meeting with a chronic headache because I was concentrating so much trying to remember everything that was said, by whom, and how many shelves were behind me and what leaflets they had on the shelves, and so on. How many drawers in the filing cabinet and who came in, at what time and that sort of thing. So it was very trying.

Could you describe the place where the London Greenpeace meetings were held?

Well initially it was up a narrow staircase into a tiny room full of, well I say full of bodies, there weren't very many people there, probably half a dozen on the first time that I went there. The impression was that there were a lot because it was such a small cramped space. There were shelves floor to ceiling in one corner of the room, which were pretty full of leaflets and things, some of which I was asked by the agency (if they related to McDonald's) to take copies of. On one side of the room there was a very rickety table which at one time absolutely collapsed with everything on top of it fell in a heap on the floor.

How were the meetings conducted by the activists?

Initially I was a bit sceptical because I'd been told they were all vegans and at the time I didn't know what veganism entailed, I didn't know anything about it. As it happens now I'm on a totally vegan diet myself. But, I expected them all to be bloodless creatures (laughs) - no personality. They were all pretty ordinary people. One may say maybe tending to fringe - the way they were dressed made you think that they were perhaps of the fringe society. I don't know if that's a good description. I didn't get a chance to talk to them all to find out what sort of jobs they were doing. Some were working, some maybe weren't working. But they were all very enthused about what they were doing.

The meetings were conducted in a very informal way. There was no official chairman or secretary. There wasn't any clear understanding of when the meeting actually began, it just sort of started because people started talking to each other. Somebody perhaps said "does anybody want to take the the minutes?", and somebody else'd reluctantly say "oh I will" and they took the book and they just wrote down roughly what entailed. Quite a few letters were received, I believe, by the group from other organisations, world-wide probably, and read out, by not necessarily one person, by different people. Whoever felt like doing something just did it. There were no allocations of jobs or anything like that.

On reflection I suppose if I knew then what I know now I would, I may well have declined to do the job.

How important was the Anti-McDonald's campaign to the group at the time?

My impression was - when I was attending the meetings - that it had been maybe an important issue in the past but it didn't figure very highly, it came quite low down on the agenda. Maybe point six or seven or something like that, and that probably only because they were organising the fair.... In fact. I've got a feeling that McDonald's wasn't figuring too much even in the fair. It was just still hanging around but they weren't actually taking much action against McDonald's at that particular time.

Was the Factsheet in evidence much when you attended the meetings?

They showed me a leaflet in court which was supposed to have been the leaflet under issue in this whole trial, and I didn't have a recollection of actually seeing it when I was going to the meetings.

What was your impression as to whether the group believed that the information they were giving out was true? Or did they see it as propaganda?

It never occurred to me that they thought of it just as propaganda. I felt that they believed sincerely in everything that they were doing. I don't quite know how to answer this question actually because as I say it never occurred to me so I've never really thought about it. I certainly wouldn't have classed them as people who would have just been maliciously trying to pull down a major organisation. I think they genuinely believed in the issues that they were presenting.

Did your boss give you any indication of what to expect of the people?

I'd been given the impression by the agency that they could possibly be quite dangerous, and if I'd given them my telephone number or address and they found out who I was I could have been under some threat. But in the end I found out that that wasn't at all the case.

I certainly didn't feel threatened by them - they seemed to be having quite a lot of fun at the meetings - jokes passing around and that sort of thing. And as the issues were coming up they were discussing them - dealing with things that had to be done. If leaflets had to be sent out to other organisations they would be stuffing the leaflets and putting them out. At no time did I ever feel that they were dangerous people who were just trying to pull down a major organisation or anything like that. I think they genuinely believed in the issues that they were supporting.

I'd been given the impression by the agency that they could possibly be quite dangerous, and if I'd given them my telephone number or address and they found out who I was I could have been under some threat.

How were you received by the members of the group?

I had the feeling (it may have been something to do with my own paranoia), but I had the feeling that they were a little bit suspicious. Because I was new, they didn't know me, they didn't know who I was, or where I'd come from, but I think they were quite willing to accept me. And if I got involved in helping them stuff envelopes and that sort of thing. We all sort of chatted together and we did actually go up to the pub a couple of times after meetings, and we just chatted and they seemed to be quite friendly. I could have quite got involved in what they were doing, I think (laughs). It wasn't at all against my beliefs.

How did you get on with Helen and Dave?

Well I didn't see an awful lot of Dave. He didn't show up very often. I can't remember exactly how many times cos it's quite a long time ago, but I think I may have only seen him there once or twice. Helen was there - with the exception of perhaps one meeting - just about every meeting. She was very friendly, we used to talk quite a lot. I remember talking to her on the way to the pub once and sitting in the pub, she was quite nice. I think we exchanged phone numbers at one time.

Didn't that make you feel at bit strange?

In a way, yes, it did, yes. I didn't go enough times to actually start making friends with anybody, but had I gone longer I felt that I probably would have got quite friendly and then it would have been very awkward. And of course I didn't use my own name.

I felt very uncomfortable doing it, I didn't like it at all, and as soon as I heard that writs had been served and I was no longer needed then I just got out of it as quickly as I could.

You introduced one particular person as an investigator into the group. Could you tell us a bit about her and what she subsequently went on to do?

Her name was Michelle Hooker and I believe she was an ex- policewoman. I know very little about her other than that. I met her and took her along there and introduced her as a friend of mine, and I think I only attended one meeting with her, after which she carried on and got involved. She was a freelance investigation agent. I think she was working just for herself. There wasn't anybody else involved. She must have been doing quite well, she used to drive up in a black BMW - she used to give me a lift in it. We stopped not far away from the meeting, parked the car and then we'd walk to the meeting and afterwards she used to give me a lift home. She gave me her card once, but I didn't have much to do with her after that.

Were you aware of who was a spy and who was an activist?

I was never aware of exactly who was of the group and who was an investigator because I now know that there were a couple of investigators that I didn't know and I believe there was one who didn't even work for the same agency that I was working for. There may well have been a least three investigators in the room at one time, and perhaps only a maximum of seven or eight people altogether, so that's quite a high percentage I suppose of people attending the meeting.

Were there rules as to how far you could go to get information for McDonald's?

Well I can't answer that for the other investigators because I wasn't a professional investigator and I wasn't trained as an investigator. I'd been personal assistant to the managing director, and all I had was a very open sort of briefing. Just go along, attend the meeting, notice as much as you can, write it all down afterwards and take a special note of anything mentioned in relation to McDonald's. Try to note down more or less everything that's talked about, all the different topics, but especially McDonald's, and if you find any leaflets that relate to McDonald's then grab some, take them.  Which I did.

Were you aware of what other investigators were doing?

I wasn't aware of what kind of briefing they had - I was never briefed together with them beforehand. So I don't know what they were asked to do. I didn't see them do anything different from what I was actually doing. They were just there, they were trying to sort of join in with the others and be natural and relate.

The court heard evidence of some of the spies breaking into the office and stealing photographs and letters and so on. Were you aware of this sort of illegal activity?

I didn't know anything about that. I've heard these stories since. That somebody broke into the office, but I heard that recently since I've been involved with Helen and Dave in the last couple of years. I wasn't aware of anything like that at the time.

They were a group of people who obviously had strong feelings about what is happening to the environment and generally our planet today, and they're actually doing something about it instead of just talking and waiting for someone else to do something about it.

Did the 'professional' spies have a more cynical attitude? Michelle Hooker, for example.

No, not that I noticed. I was quite surprised when she came along for the first time because I thought I had to sort of dress down and wear sandals and sort of hippy-type clothes, you know, but she came along with quite flashy jewellery and long tapered painted finger nails and make up and she didn't to my mind look as though... Well I thought that people would have suspected that she wasn't one of them basically, but in actual fact I think she got involved quite deeply afterwards, so they can't have been too suspicious of her. We didn't talk about anything to do with the case afterwards, we didn't have any social time together, we just went straight home afterwards.

I've heard about her involvement again recently - I didn't know at the time because I left and I didn't have any contact with anybody, so I just left her to carry on after my sort of pulling out. Now I've heard that she was involved in some meetings that they had - some demonstrations maybe - she was giving out leaflets. I think she's even been photographed giving out leaflets - in fact I know because I was shown a photograph of her in court and I had to identify her. More than that I don't really know.

The irony of that is superb: someone employed by McDonald's giving out the very leaflet that they are trying to stop the distribution of.

Yes, yes. If you look at it like that, very odd I would think (laughs). Actually I have heard a rumour that she got involved romantically I think, with one of the members of the group. I don't know of that for sure, I just heard that.

NOTE: The court heard that Michelle Hooker did in fact have an affair with one of the activists in the group.

Did you ever ask yourself whether it was a worthwhile thing to be doing?

No, at the time I was just doing a job and I actually left the employ of the investigation agency while it was still going on and I was asked if I would continue for some time, and I agreed, and I really didn't want to do it, but I did it because I'd said that I would. I felt very uncomfortable doing it, I didn't like it at all, and as soon as I heard that writs had been served and I was no longer needed then I just got out of it as quickly as I could.

How did you come to be a witness for the defence?

Well it was rather strange how it came out that I was actually working as an investigator in that case. I was in the pub talking to one of my college friends, and we were talking about our lives before and things that had happened and I told her about this job that I'd done and she suddenly went "hah! I know them!". And then we talked about all the possibilities of what might come out of this, and then we forgot about it - or I forgot about it - for quite some time after that.

And then I got a phone call out of the blue, would I be interested in meeting Helen and Dave and just talking about what I had done and my involvement in the investigation and so on? And I was filled with trepidation, I didn't know what to do. I thought about it and I thought "well why not?". I didn't see any reason why not - little bit paranoid again, didn't know really who they were or what they might do, having got me in their clutches, so to speak, you know. But I went along and we really got on quite well and we talked about the whole thing and Helen took lots of notes and after that they asked me if I would consider appearing as a witness for them in the case.

And why did you decide to appear in court?

Well, by this time I'd been doing my nutritional course I'd learned an awful lot more about environmental questions and so on. I realise now that prior to that I was totally ignorant, as I think a lot of people in our society are, of what's happening to the planet and so on. And I felt - having given it a tremendous amount of thought - that I might be able to do something to help by doing this.

You go in there and you're playing a role, you're trying to be very natural and talk to people and not blow your cover.

What happened just before you were to appear as a witness?

Well it was a couple of weeks before I was due to appear in court to give evidence, and I was at work and I received a telephone call from my husband at work to say `be careful' or `watch out' - something to that effect - `you're being followed'. And he said that a man had come to the door and he'd told him his name was Jack Russell and that he used to work with me. I knew something was afoot because I'd never actually met Jack Russell at the time that I was working for the investigation agency. He'd had a heart attack and was off work - had been for about six months or something like that. I heard later that he resumed part-time work there, or something to that effect, and he didn't tell in what capacity we were working. He just led him to believe that he was an ex-boyfriend or something like that, and that he was following me.

He asked my husband what time the train I came home from work on came in, what time I left work, what time I went to work, questions like that. Which was very unnerving. We were both quite worried about what the consequences might be - what he had in his mind to do.

Did you talk to him?

He didn't make contact with me at all. Strangely enough that night that he came to the door and spoke to my husband I was working unusually late, so I didn't get home `til about ten thirty. I believe he came to the door about the time that I normally get home from work, between seven, seven-thirty, something like that. I would assume, he had already been checking up on me to find out what my movements were. Which makes it feel a little bit strange.

Putting two and two together, who do you think he was?

It was my feeling that he was one of the investigators who worked at the agency that I used to work for and I felt that they didn't like the fact that I was appearing for the defendants instead of for the plaintiffs, basically. But I didn't know what their intentions were in that. And he said that he just wanted to ask me why I'd done it. I mean it sounded very dramatic - "done it", you know. Basically he meant why was I giving evidence for the defendants. I believe all the other investigators who'd been brought as witnesses were appearing for McDonald's.

What were your feelings?

I was absolutely outraged, as well as being extremely nervous, because I didn't know what his intentions were. As I said, I was looking over my shoulder going to work and coming home and taking devious routes, and looking behind me to see if anyone was following me. I was quite unnerved for several days after that, and so was my husband. We got no further contact from them. I did actually hear from - I think it was Helen who told me - that the agency that I worked for was no longer operating. I did a little bit of investigation work myself and looked up in the telephone directory and found their name was still in the directory, so I telephoned them and asked for Mr Russell, and was told that he was in a meeting, so I'm assuming they're still functioning under that name.

So do you feel as if you've changed sides?

In one respect I haven't changed sides because at the time I was doing a job, and then when I was asked to be a witness I was just standing up in court and saying factually what happened. But looking at it from a different perspective perhaps I have changed sides because now I feel that I'm much more informed about environmental issues and so on. In my nutritional course we learn about environmental medicine - what effect different foods have, different pollutants in the atmosphere have in ones body, and how they contribute to degenerative diseases (not just degenerative diseases but all kinds of problems that people have, even mild mood swings can be attributed to pollutants in the atmosphere and things like that). I'm much more concerned now. So I suppose in a way I have to say "yes I have changed sides" because I feel I've become more informed.

What was it like in the witness box?

It was very scary. I had to work quite hard on myself to not be very shaky and just keep myself composed. Once I got into the witness box and the questions were being asked then it was all right, I was OK, I didn't feel worried any more, because I knew all I had to do was speak the truth, so I had nothing to worry about.

How were you treated by Mr Rampton?

He hardly asked me any questions at all. All he got me to do was at the end - when Dave and Helen had finished questioning me - he just stood up and asked me to avow my statement, which I did. And he also asked me one other question which was something to the effect that could I confirm that my recollection of the events that took place at the time when I was actually getting involved in the meetings would have been better then, so that would have been what I wrote down in my reports, than now. And all I could do was to say "yes".

There may well have been a least three investigators in the room at one time, and perhaps only a maximum of seven or eight people altogether

What was Helen and Dave's cross-examination like?

I would have liked them to have been a little bit more specific in the direction of their questions. I felt that they left it a little bit open and a couple of times asked me what my impressions were, and I felt conscious ... I mean, I have little knowledge of the way the court works and my feeling was that I'm sure that they don't want to really listen to me going on about my opinions and impressions and things, much as I would have liked to have expounded on it. But I would have liked them to have been more pointed and direct with their questions, but otherwise they just took me through my statement basically to get me to highlight certain aspects of it, confirm certain aspects of it, rather than just saying `this is your statement do you confirm that.'

Do you regret giving evidence for the defence now?

I have no regrets that I actually appeared as a witness for the defendants in this matter for Helen and Dave. I feel that in court, I wasn't really given an opportunity to say as much as perhaps Helen and Dave would have liked me to have done - and indeed I would have liked to have done - about my impressions of the group, because the judge just didn't want to hear about my opinions and my impressions and it was very much a case of having to answer questions "yes" and "no". But I would have liked to have been able to say more about them, I think.

What would you have liked to have said about London Greenpeace?

That they were a group of people who obviously had strong feelings about what is happening to the environment and generally our planet today, and they're actually doing something about it instead of just talking and waiting for someone else to do something about it. And I think that's a very good thing. Pity more people can't do something instead of just talking about it.

What was the main reason you felt you needed to be there?

Knowing what I do about nutrition, knowing what I now know about the way certain of the foods are produced, I think that I had to get up and take the stand, so to speak - couldn't really refuse.

What do you think of McDonald's now?

My attitude to McDonald's is that merely there's no way that I would go into a McDonald's and have any of the food that they offer because I know that it's not gonna do me any good, personally. That's the main reason that I wouldn't go into McDonald's and buy the food that they offer. But also, now that I know more about the environmental issues - I haven't gone into it deeply so I wouldn't like to say too much about it. I wish that I'd been able to sit in on the court case for the whole two years and become that much more informed, because I think a lot of important information has probably been thrown up and put before the public.

How do you now feel about having been a spy?

As far as working for the agency at that time, I feel that I was doing it in all innocence because I just wasn't informed at that time. I mean I knew who the client was, I knew who we were working for, but I was working for the agency and I was just doing my job at the time. So it's difficult to say. I mean, on reflection I suppose if I knew then what I know now I would, I may well have declined to do the job.

Do you wish you hadn't done it?

No. Not at all. It's all experience.

See also:

  • Fran Tiller's witness statement
  • Trial News 1; Trial News 2 and Trial News 3 - evidence from events in court, including Fran Tiller's testimony.
  • McLibel Court Transcripts