The McLibel Trial:
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.
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.
One of the points in the Factsheet was that McDonald's had a long-term strategy to shift Asian dietary patterns from fish and rice to meat and potatoes. A statement was read to the court from Den Fujita, president of McDonald's, Japan, indicating that "the reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skin is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for 2,000 years; if we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years we will become taller, our skin will become white and our hair blonde."
The finer points of marketing strategy were elicited by quotations from McDonald's confidential operations manual on the all-important theme that the company's mission was to promote the McDonald's experience for children: "Ronald loves McDonald's and McDonald's food. And so do children, because they love Ronald. Remember, children exert a phenomenal influence when it comes to restaurant selection. This means you should do everything you can to appeal to children's love for Ronald and McDonald's." Steel and Morris then produced statements by Geoffrey Giuliano, a former Ronald McDonald actor who testified, "I brainwashed children into doing wrong. I want to say I'm sorry to children everywhere for selling out to concerns who make millions by murdering animals."
On the company's treatment of workers and its unending efforts to suppress employees who would organize, Steel and Morris produced abundant testimony. "I am of the view," wrote Nicholas McGill, "that McDonald's brainwashes its employees." "If anyone joined a union, or even seriously considered joining a union," Siamak Alimi testified, "they would be sacked." "Looking back," Simon Gibney remembered, "I find it alarming that the labor rate was the only thing taken into account when setting staffing levels. Safety played absolutely no part." This statement somewhat eroded the romantic effusions of Paul Preston, president of McDonald's U.K., who exclaimed, "McDonald's isn't a job. It's a life. Our employees have ketchup in their veins."
One claim in the Factsheet was that cattle ranching for McDonald's beef had caused deforestation and displacement of Indian peoples in Amazonia. McDonald's swore up and down that all its Euro-patties came from Euro-herds; and that the only Brazilian beef used by McDonald's is that purchased by the six stores located in Brazil itself.
This claim fell apart when Steel and Morris acquired internal company documents showing that in 1983 and 1984 McDonald's U.K. had imported beef from Brazil. When confronted with this information, Ed Oakley--the chief purchasing officer for McDonald's--said this did not violate McDonald's policy: "We still bought the hamburger locally. We did not buy the ingredients locally." A very Platonic distinction. It has also emerged--after years of evasion by McDonald's--that the company gets beef from areas in Golas, in Brazil, which have been the locale of extensive deforestation (for the creation of cattle ranches), with indigenous people being forced out.
Sue Branford, a Brazilian specialist, testified, "Although McDonald's have not been at the forefront of destruction, it seems to me it cannot dissociate itself from all the harm that has been done. It seems to be clear that McDonald's must still be buying beef from ranches on land until recently occupied by Guarani and Kadiweu Indians, and at least until 1982 [must] have bought beef from ranches on recently cleared tropical rainforest."
The case will probably close sometime later this year, with a verdict by Mr. Justice Bell. Steel and Morris have already won the substantive victory, but there has been a final bizarre twist. Steel and Morris, an appeals court has ruled, must be held responsible for every occasion on which the Factsheet was distributed. In turn, Steel and Morris are saying that if they are to be held responsible, so also must three McDonald's infiltrators who have admitted distributing the Factsheet and who, if McDonald's wins the case, will be liable to McDonald's for damages.
But of course the three will claim they were acting as paid agents, so McDonald's will end up suing its own people and paying them to pay the damages assessed by the judge. Thus--courtesy of two very courageous and resourceful anarchists--will the great McDonald's libel case be reduced to informative farce.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.
- Steven Timm charged with animal cruelty for harassing, drowning deer
- Cataclysmic boredom propels Stewart Mills into 2016 congressional race
- Man goes to meet prostitute with a trunk full of plastic and a giant empty suitcase