The McLibel Two
The name McLibel epitomises the six year libel trial fought by two ordinary Londoners, Helen Steel (b 1965) and Dave Morris (b 1954), against the international, multi-billion dollar fast food giant McDonald's. The legal conflict exposed dubious practices of unrestrained big business and demonstrated the interconnectedness of animals, green issues and social justice.
London Greenpeace was a small group in 1980's London campaigning for social justice (and no relation to Greenpeace). McDonald's, symbol of globalisation and the American lifestyle, epitomised for them much of what they were fighting to change. In 1986 they produced a leaflet accusing McDonald's of corrupt practices, including cruelty to animals, destruction of rainforests, exploitation of their staff and selling unhealthy food. Many groups worldwide were demonstrating against McDonald's but London Greenpeace brought all the issues together in the one leaflet: What's Wrong With McDonald's
and distributed copies outside McDonald's restaurants in London.
McDonald's was spending millions of advertising dollars every year convincing people to eat their junk food. They threatened or sued everyone who criticised them, no matter who they were, whether national corporations, the press or individuals, and almost everyone backed down from this giant. McDonald's could not sue London Greenpeace as it was only an association of individuals, so they pick five activists and told them to apologise or appear in court.
Three activists recanted but Helen Steel, sometime gardener and nightclub bar worker, and Dave Morris, sometime London postman, stood firm. Consequently in 1990 McDonald's served libel writs on them - even though both denied distributing the offending leaflet. Steel and Morris were unwaged at the time of the trial and could not afford a lawyer. But despite being naive of libel law and court procedures they decided to fight the case themselves. Their moral claim was to defend the right to criticise and scrutinise multi-national companies. Fortunately, pre-trial hearings gave Steel and Morris valuable experience with court procedures and they had free but sporadic advice from sympathetic lawyers. McDonald's engaged the best professional team of lawyers they could buy.
The trial proper began in 1994 at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. A witty reporter called the case the McLibel Trial,
a nickname that stuck, and Steel and Morris were dubbed the McLibel Two
. Keeping everything going was an ordeal for the Two. A typical day started at seven or earlier in the morning to get ready for the day's proceedings, such as preparing questions to put to witnesses. Once home from court, preparations continued up to midnight for the following day. All this was on top of looking after their mundane domestic affairs, whereas the McDonald's team of lawyers had partners at home and office staff to help them.
What gave the McLibel Two the strength to keep going was the thought that the case was not a personal struggle between them and McDonald's, but a campaign for justice against a multinational company trampling over people, animals and nature. Encouraging letters from a well-wishing public and £40,000 in donations and other support lifted their spirits. The 'McLibel Support Campaign' held a march for free speech and questions were asked in Parliament opposing the use of libel writs by big companies to silence critics.
In one of the several legal machinations, McDonald's council succeeded in discharging the jury, which might have proved hostile to McDonald's, on grounds that its members were ordinary people who would not understand the scientific evidence. But Steel and Morris petitioned the House of Lords, the highest court in Britain, and the jury was reinstated. After all, the McLibel Two were ordinary people and if they could understand the evidence then a jury should be able to understand it as well.
Everyone thought the trial would take only a few months, but it ran for six years turning into the longest trail in British legal history (and subsequent legal battles continued for several more years until 2005). Finally, the judge reached a verdict. Steel and Morris were guilty of libelling McDonald's and had to pay them £60,000 in damages (later cut by a third). Damages were relatively light because the judge upheld some of the allegations against McDonald's, such as causing animal suffering, exploiting children through advertising, and misleading the public about their food's goodness. Steel and Morris swore never to pay McDonald's. McDonald's chose not to force them to pay - possibly with public relations in mind.
The McLibel Trial was a moral victory for the McLibel Two and the biggest public relations blunder in the history of business for McDonald's. McDonald's became a symbol of corporate badness using animals, nature and people merely as means to make a profit. The McLibel Trial received worldwide coverage in the news media for the right of ordinary people to freedom of speech against powerful multi-nationals. As Dave Morris said:
The reality is that McDonald's itself is a completely nondescript, money-making organisation, full of hot air - without advertising it would be nothing. (1)
(1) Dave Morris
, One-Off Productions. 1996. (Accessed online February 2007.)
. One-Off Productions. 1997. (Accessed online February 2007.)
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