The McLibel Trial:

Making Mincemeat of McDonald's

           On June 28 the longest-running libel case in the history of the British courts completed its second year. On one side, the McDonald's Corporation, with $26 billion in annual sales worldwide; on the other, a couple of anarchists with an annual joint income of about $11,000. But although McDonald's has thus far spent that sum every day in prosecuting the pair for their foul and unkind words, there's no doubt that the two anarchists--Helen Steel, a 30-year-old gardener and part-time bar worker, and Dave Morris, a 42-year-old former postman and single parent--have had by far the better of the battle. Even though they are representing themselves against some of England's most experienced legal knifefighters, they have forced damaging admissions from McDonald's and made the corporation a laughing stock worldwide.

           The case began back in 1986 when a 30-strong group called London Greenpeace (in no way affiliated with Greenpeace International) began to agitate on a number of issues, ranging from the villainies of the World Bank to mustering support for the striking mineworkers. Fast food was one of the group's concerns. In 1986 the group produced a leaflet--Steel and Morris had no part in its composition--called "What's Wrong With McDonald's? Everything They Don't Want You To Know."

           The "Factsheet," running to some six pages, was a detailed denunciation of McDonald's for destroying rainforest in the Amazon and Costa Rica by fostering cattle ranches; for the exploitation of workers; for the promotion of unhealthy food; for deceptive advertising; and for excessive packaging and waste. Among the terms creating resentment at McDonald's HQ were "McTorture," "McCancer," "McMurder," "McGreedy," and "McProfits."

           At the first sign of demonstrations outside its outlets, McDonald's security--run by a former senior British policeman--went on high alert. They took photographs of the demonstrators and contacted friends in the Special Branch (Britain's domestic secret police) to review files and case histories of suspects. There were meetings with senior Special Branch officers at McDonald's headquarters. Sid Nicholson, McDonald's vice president and former head of security, has admitted in court that Special Branch officers supplied information to the company about environmentalists believed to be handing out the leaflets. (Nicholson's career commenced in the South African police.)

           McDonald's rapidly engaged the services of seven private investigators (chastely called "enquiry agents") to infiltrate London Greenpeace. This process began in October of 1989. The infiltrators (some of whom later regretted their work and are now testifying for the defense) took minutes, followed organizers to their homes, stole letters and--crucially, in order to demonstrate their bona fides--eagerly distributed the Factsheet denouncing the company that had hired them.

           In September 1990, McDonald's issued libel writs against five members of London Greenpeace they considered responsible (based on info from the infiltrators) for putting out the Factsheets. At first, all five were prepared to fight. But then they were told the essential truth, which is that it's impossible to fight a libel action without major financial resources, and that legal aid was unavailable in a libel fight. At this point three issued apologies and agreed not to distribute the Factsheet. Helen Steel held firm and persuaded Dave Morris to join her.

           Most British lawyers didn't think the case would last beyond the pre-trial motions. Steel and Morris had their first setback when a judge ruled that they had to get primary sources within three weeks to back up every claim in the Factsheet. Amazingly, they managed to round up over 65 witness statements from forest ecologists, health experts, advertising executives, former McDonald's employees, and others. Seeing that it was in for a fight, McDonald's hired, at $3,000 a day, Richard Rampton QC (Queen's Council) to be its lead barrister. Rampton immediately earned his money by persuading a judge in 1993 that the scientific evidence was so complex that no jury would be able to understand it, and the case would be better heard before a judge. Steel and Morris lost their 12 best friends.

           In March of 1994 McDonald's made a strategic blunder. It published its own leaflet titled "Why McDonald's Is Going To Court," denouncing Steel and Morris as liars and saying the case had nothing to do with free speech. This clumsy move was the brainchild of McDonald's new flack, Mike Love, who had formerly been manager of Margaret Thatcher's electoral district. The McDonald's leaflet gave Steel and Morris an opening to counter-sue, charging the corporation had defamed them. This suit has been melded into McDonald's libel case, with the result that the burden shifted to the company, which now has to prove that the statements in the Factsheet are lies.

           Day after day, for 24 months, Steel and Morris--steadily growing more adept in courtroom skills--have hauled McDonald's executives and experts onto the witness stand and made fools of them.

           They asked Dr. Sydney Arnott, McDonald's cancer expert, his opinion on the following statement: "A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products, and salts, and low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals is linked with cancer of the breast and bowel and heart disease." Dr. Arnott replied, "If it is being directed to the public, then I would say it is a very reasonable thing to say." The statement was an extract from the London Greenpeace Factsheet and had been characterized by Rampton as the central defamatory allegation, which could be "the kiss of death" for a fast-food company like McDonald's.

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