Mclibel A Case Study In English Defamation Law California

. . . malnutrition . . .

What they don't make clear is that a diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt . . . and low in fiber, vitamins and minerals -- which describes an average McDonald's meal -- is linked with cancers of the breast and bowel, and heart disease. . . .

. . . not to mention worker exploitation, animal cruelty -- and the brainwashing of children:

. . . Thousands of young children now think of burgers and chips every time they see a clown with orange hair.

In November 1990, McDonald's said enough is enough and filed suit. After years of preliminary hearings, the case was ready for trial in June 1994. The company explained its position in a flyer, "Why McDonald's Is Going to Court," distributed in Britain beforehand:

* [ The leaflet ] contains many statements about McDonald's which are NOT TRUE AND HIGHLY DAMAGING.

*The leaflet has been distributed worldwide since 1984. Its contents have been repeated in the media, schools and even a church magazine.

*During that period, the group has ignored several requests from McDonald's to stop publishing the leaflet.

*As a last resort, McDonald's is going to court to prove that the contents of the leaflet are untrue and to stop its publication.

*This action is not about freedom of speech; it is about the right to stop people telling lies.

Under British libel law, the burden is on defendants to prove that what was printed was true (while plaintiffs in the United States need to prove damaging assertions false). Saddled with this seeming disadvantage, the hard-up defendants (backed by an international McLibel Support Campaign) nevertheless have been able to ventilate their charges, examining scores of witnesses. On July 19, 1994, there was this exchange between Miss Steel and Paul Preston, President of McDonald's in Britain:

Miss Steel: This may sound like a silly question, but what is the purpose of Ronald McDonald?

Mr. Preston: He is a spokesman to children.

Q. For what reason?

A. An advertising symbol . . . He is a character who has become known and loved with children on many fronts in an educational sense, synonymous with McDonald's, the food, the fun involved. . . .

Q. Is that part of what is known as "the McDonald's experience"? . . .

A. I think for young children [ in the ] 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-year-old age group, I would say it is very much a part of the experience. All you have to do is watch one of his magic shows. . . . It becomes blatantly clear what power he has in terms of an educational, influencing factor on young people.

Q. What about an influencing factor in terms of what those children might eat?

A. Well, certainly he is a factor. If he promotes McDonald's, he is obviously there to help promote the business.

Q. Right. So . . . you are using Ronald McDonald to sell your products directly to children?

A. Ronald McDonald does not sell food. Ronald McDonald is seen in restaurants. He does not sell large boxes of fries or Big Macs. He never has to children. He has never been seen in a McDonald's advertisement selling big sandwiches, big fries, drinks to children ever once. . . .

Q. You mentioned a large Coke or a large fries. What about medium Coke or medium fries?

A. Never. He has never been used with anything other than hamburger, cheeseburger, soft drink, Happy Meal, to my knowledge, anywhere . . .

Q. So you are using him to sell food?

A. He is associated with food but . . . has never said: "Kids, come in, buy this" -- never.

Q. But that is the purpose.

A. The purpose is to promote McDonald's.

Q. Yes, but McDonald's sells food? . . .

And last Dec. 8, there was this exchange between the defendants and Edward Oakley, senior vice president of McDonald's in Britain, over a McDonald's pamphlet on nutrition:

Miss Steel: Going over to the third page: "To help all our customers eat healthily, we are constantly making our menu even more nutritious." Is the implication of that that your menu was nutritious in the first place?

Mr. Oakley: It certainly contains all the nutrients you need in a daily diet.

Q. All of them?

A. Well, I am not aware of any that it does not contain.

Q. In the amounts that you need?

A. Not in the amounts that you need. We are not claiming that. You have to balance the diet to get the correct amount . . .

Q. What do you mean by nutritious?

A. Foods that contain nutrients.

Q. That is what it means?

A. Yes. . . .

Mr. Morris: Over the page it says : "Every time you eat at McDonald's you will be eating good nutritious food." If I go into McDonald's and buy a milk shake and take it away, that is eating good nutritious food?

A. Yes, there are a lot of nutrients in a milk shake.

Q. If I just go in and have some chips [ french fries ] , that is good nutritious food?

A. Potatoes are a good source of nutrients, yes. . . .

Miss Steel: Is there any food you know of that is not nutritious?

A. I do not know if you would call it food or not, but you could put up an argument for black coffee or black tea or mineral water.

Q. Right.

A. On their own.

Q. What about Coca-Cola?

A. Coca-Cola has a good source of energy, no question of that.

Q. So you think it is nutritious then?

A. Yes, it can be.

The trial, now in recess, resumes next month and is expected to drag into 1996 before a ruling by the long-suffering presiding Justice, Rodger Bell. Not everyone is amused, least of all taxpayers upset over the cost. "Anyone who doubts the need for reform of the law of libel should pay a visit to the Royal Courts of Justice in London's Strand," The Economist wrote of the trial.

Continue reading the main story
Twenty years ago last month a small anarchist group called London Greenpeace - nothing to do with the environmentalists - began a campaign to "expose the reality" behind what they called the advertising "mask" of McDonald's.

As they handed defamatory leaflets to McDonald's customers in the Strand, London, no one could have foreseen the chain of events which led directly to yesterday's ruling in the European court of human rights, and to Dave Morris and Helen Steel handing out more offending leaflets yesterday outside the same restaurant.

The McLibel two, beaming below a DIY banner reading "20 years of Global Resistance to McWorld", said they were "elated".

"It's a great victory," Ms Steel said. "[This judgment] shows that the British libel laws are oppressive and unfair. I hope that the government will have to change them, and there will be greater freedom of speech for the public."

But it barely needed the European court to decide that the trial was "unfair". Anyone who visited the austere Court 11 of the Royal Courts of Justice between June 28 1994 and December 16 1996 when the epic 313-day libel case was in progress could tell at a glance that the two defendants were at a horrendous disadvantage.

Mr Morris and Ms Steel, who earned about £3,500 a year, had no legal training and were trying to defend themselves in one of the most complex branches of the English law.

Sometimes they were cutting, but not surprisingly they hesitated, paused, and conferred at every point. What was expected to be a six- and then a 12-week trial became a painfully slow slog stretching into legal infinity. It was a triumph for Ms Steel and Mr Morris just to have got through the legal thickets of the 28 pre-trial hearings and into the case proper, but they needed the help of the judge as well as the pro bono advice of Keir Starmer QC and others who shared their civil liberties concern about the case.

McDonald's, on the other hand, had the smoothest of luxury legal machines. The company not only employed Richard Rampton QC, a formidable £2,000-a-day libel specialist, a £1,000-a-day solicitor, and the services of a full legal chambers, but also had access to anything it wanted, and thought nothing of flying in witnesses and experts from all over the world.

Halfway through the longest trial in English civil case history the McLibel two's joint assessment of English libel law was that it was an arcane relic, a legal lottery that favoured only the very rich.

They were appalled that when they took the British government to the European court of human rights in 1991 to try to get legal aid they were refused, bizarrely because it was considered that they were defending themselves rather well on their own. They were infuriated, too, that they were denied a jury on the basis that ordinary people would not understand complex scientific arguments, even though they - as ordinary as they come - could clearly understand the issues well enough to defend themselves. And they found it hard to believe that the burden was always on them on prove with primary evidence what almost every other country would consider legitimate comment.

But the heart of their case was that McDonald's, a company with a turnover of $40bn (£21bn) a year, was unfairly using the British libel laws to sue two penniless people for libel over public interest issues which affect people's every day lives. It was a clear case, they said, of the corporate censorship of opposition and debate backed by the British establishment.

Mr Morris, who shot from the hip during the trial, in contrast to Ms Steel's more incisive questioning, recalled yesterday how they got through the legal nightmare. "We basically rolled up our sleeves and got on with it."

What he did not say was that they frequently felt cruelly punished for their original ignorance of the law. The case may have gone on so long in part because of their lack of legal aid, but it was also because they believed the court treated them shabbily at times. When Ms Steel was suffering badly from stress, she was denied the shortest adjournment.

Yesterday the book was closed on a trial that would not be allowed to last so long today - and would probably never happen, if only because no big corporation would ever seek to pursue two such determined critics.

"It was a nightmare fighting that case, but it was a unique chance to expose the reality of McDonald's," Mr Morris said.

As ever, he took the bigger political picture. "Our overall object has always been to encourage people to stand up for themselves and to take control of their resources, not multinational companies or governments. This should encourage people to better defend themselves."

The final proof that times have changed since 1985 was to be found in the restaurant outside which the McLibel two gave their press conference yesterday. Of five customers chosen at random, two had not only heard of the McLibel trial but agreed that what Ms Steel and Mr Morris had achieved was both important and significant for society and had moved on the debate about food and corporate behaviour. The conundrum, perhaps, was that they had still chosen to eat there.

· John Vidal wrote McLibel - Burger Culture on Trial (Macmillan)

From flyers to lawsuits

1985 London Greenpeace (LG) launches anti-McDonald's campaign

1989 McDonald's sends spies to infiltrate LG

1990 McDonald's issues writs against five people

1991 All except Ms Steel and Mr Morris apologise. Defendants take the government to European court of human rights to demand legal aid. Denied

1992-4 Pre-trial hearings

1994 Full trial starts

1996 Trial ends after 313 days in high court

1997 Judge finds for McDonald's in five areas, but for the McLibel two in three

1999 Appeal starts

1998 Defendants sue Metropolitan police

1999 Appeal court rules defendants must pay £40,000

2001 Appeal to European court of human rights

2004 Hearing begins

2005 Court ruling

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