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McLibel: British Activists Sued for Distributing McDonald’s Flyers Win Court Case

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Two activists sued by McDonalds in Britain won their case against the British government, in a case that could change UK libel law forever. The European Court of Human Rights said the UK legal system breached the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression. Activists David Morris and Helen Steel were sued by McDonalds in 1990 for handing out leaflets called “What”s Wrong with McDonald’s”, accusing the company of paying low wages, cruelty to animals used in its products and dozens of other malpractices. [includes rush transcript]

McDonald’s won and was awarded £40,000 in libel damages. But the so-called “McLibel Two” refused to pay at the end of a trial. Yesterday, they won their claim that the libel trial was unfair–in the longest civil or criminal action in English legal history. David Morris spoke outside a McDonalds in Britain moments after the ruling

  • David Morris and Helen Steel, speaking on Feb. 15

They now join us on the phone from Britain.

  • David Morris, plaintiff in McLibel case.
  • Helen Steel, plaintiff in McLibel case.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: David Morris spoke outside a McDonald’s in Britain, moments after the ruling.

DAVID MORRIS: Right. This is a victory, not only did we score some amazing victories in the court in the UK, because the judge ruled that McDonald’s exploits children with their advertising, that they deceptively promote their food as nutritious, that they —

HELEN STEEL: Pay low wages.

DAVID MORRIS: Pay low wages. Lowest wages in the industry, and they are responsible for cruelty to animals. On top of that, we won further at the court of appeals. This is our third major court hearing, and we won hands down both our points, that the libel laws in this country are oppressive and they’re unfair.

AMY GOODMAN: That was former postman David Morris. The other person in the case was Helen Steel. She also spoke after the ruling.

HELEN STEEL: It was a nightmare fighting the case, but at the same time it’s a unique opportunity to examine the inner workings of a multinational company and expose the reality, get it out in the open, because normally that’s kept under wraps.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Helen Steel, David Morris, as they join us on the phone now from Britain. David Morris, can you talk about this case, which has two aspects — first, what you said about McDonald’s, and their suit against you and finally the significance of this court case, which goes to British libel law. You might change British libel law forever.

DAVID MORRIS: Well, it’s a very long case to sum up, really. 15 years of legal argument and legal action. But basically, McDonald’s brought the case to try to silence public criticism that was being made, particularly by London Greenpeace but it has also sued dozens of other organizations before they sued us. Everybody backed down because the laws are well known to be stacked in favor of the rich and powerful in the UK. So, the climate of fear is being created where no one was prepared to speak out about the company. But we decided that we had to fight the case, because on principle, to defend freedom of speech. And so, it went on from there, really, we didn’t know what we were doing at the beginning, but by the time it got to trial, you know, we were getting more and more experienced, getting victories, we were getting documents, the company was forced to disclose documents that would otherwise have remained hidden, and so on and so forth. And really, it became the longest trial in English history and we had some devastating verdicts against McDonald’s as you heard, at the end of that case, but, amazingly, no legal sanctions were ordered against McDonald’s, for what they had lost. And yet we were expected to pay the company, this huge corporation, 40,000 pounds. That’s what forced us, really, to go to the European courts to say that the laws are ridiculous in the UK.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Steel, what was your reaction to the ruling?

HELEN STEEL: Well, obviously, you know, we’re very pleased that the court — the European court in Strasbourg has finally recognized what we have been saying for the last 15 years, which is that UK libel laws are oppressive and unfair and act as a barrier to freedom speech for ordinary people, but at the same time we also think, you know, it should be recognized just how much we won, despite all of those odds stacked against us, you know. So, yes it’s just — well, it’s like one victory on top of another, it’s great.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen, there were actually five of you that McDonald’s sued but only two of you remained in this. Why, and what happened to the other three?

HELEN STEEL: Well, when we got — when McDonald’s served the writs on us, we were actually told that because there’s no legal aid for libel, and because the UK libel laws are so complicated and oppressive, that we didn’t really stand a chance of being able to work our way through all of the complex procedures and so on. And under those circumstances, the other three people reluctantly felt they had — that they were forced into apologizing, and they have actually retracted that apology, and said that basically, it was made under duress, but when it came to my turn to sort of say, well, okay, you know, we’ll run and hide into nothing, it stuck in my throat to apologize to McDonald’s. I felt like, well, it’s actually McDonald’s who should be apologizing to society for the damage they do to society and the environment. And I just decided that really, come what may, I was going to fight it, just because I thought it was bad to give in to bullying and intimidation.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Helen Steel and David Morris. We’re going to break and then when we come back, we’ll talk about the actual charges they made against McDonald’s and their pamphlets that they gave to people outside of McDonald’s, and then we’re going to look at a case in the United States where McDonald’s has just settled a major lawsuit that was brought by a website called ban trans fats —, about a very dangerous oil that is used in their food that most people thought they were no longer using. This is Democracy Now!. Our guests are Helen Steel and David Morris. We’ll be back with them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: As we look at McDonald’s in Britain and the United States, major lawsuit against activists, a former postman, a former farmer in Britain and then we’ll look at the case of the use of trans fats by McDonald’s in the United States. We’ll be speaking with people who sued them here. We’re going to go back to our guests in Britain right now. Again, who won a major legal victory. Can you talk about what was in the pamphlet you gave out to people who were going to McDonald’s?

HELEN STEEL: Well, basically, the leaflet criticizes McDonald’s for promoting unhealthy food, exploiting their workers through low pay and through the fact that they’re hostile to trade unions. The damage to the environment through masses of unnecessary packaging, cruelty to the animals reared for the meat products, and it criticized their massive advertising budget and the targeting of children through the advertising. I mean, they’re all basically common sense criticisms that are actually made quite widely now. You know, London Greenpeace wasn’t actually the first to make those criticisms in any event. It just kind of brought all of the different criticisms together to take a kind of overall look at the effects of multinational corporations on society.

DAVID MORRIS: I think also, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t just McDonald’s that was under the spotlight, it was basically McDonald’s as a symbol of what the whole fast food industry and multinationals together, the whole economic system is doing in terms of its domination over our lives and our environment.

AMY GOODMAN: And so then, explain exactly what happened. You’re giving out pamphlets. How many days did you do it and what happened? How did McDonald’s approach you when they sued you?

DAVID MORRIS: Well, London Greenpeace had started a campaign against McDonald’s and the whole fast food industry and the leaflets that were being given out were fantastically well received by the public, because McDonald’s spends $2 billion every year through their advertising, in practically forcing their views on the public, and people were crying out for an alternative point of view. So, the group was quite enthusiastic about the way things were being received, but of course, McDonald’s had a different idea about it, and the first contact that members of the group had with McDonald’s were the writs, which were served saying there’s going to be a court case.

AMY GOODMAN: And so at the point where you lost the case, on what grounds or you won on some points, lost on others? What grounds did you win on and then lose on?

HELEN STEEL: Well it, was a mixed verdict. You know, remarkably, the judge managed to find that they weren’t responsible for litter or environmental damage, but he actually found that they were — that their food is pretended to have positive nutritional benefit — sorry the advertising had pretended to a positive nutritional benefit, which their food didn’t match, and that they exploit children with their advertising strategy, that they were responsible for animal cruelty, that they paid low wages, helping to depress wages in the catering trade, and then we also won further points on appeal about basically that if you ate enough of McDonald’s food, your diet might well become high in fat with a very real risk of heart disease and also further points about employment conditions.

DAVID MORRIS: So pretty much their core business practices were found to be, you know, strongly lacking. These were devastating — probably the worst judgments ever made against a multinational corporation. We didn’t win on all points. We didn’t win on concerns over food safety issues. We didn’t win over the McDonald’s direct involvement in destruction of rain forests even though the beef industry as a whole has been very strongly responsible for some of the devastation of Amazonian forests. So, you know, it was our continuing arguments, and we went to appeal and then we took it to the European court.

AMY GOODMAN: And so now, what happens? Do you get paid back for your — what is this — 15 years of legal struggle?

DAVID MORRIS: Well, really it’s not about money, is it? It’s about matters of principle. We really felt actually we had already won, we had beaten McDonald’s in the actual trial. But most importantly, not just inside the courtroom, but outside the courtroom, leaflets are now being given out to millions all over the world, criticizing the company, but more important than that, there’s a vibrant public debate, and increasing concern to challenge the promotion of unhealthy food, to look at what multinationals are doing to our lives, as a whole anti-capitalist movement that’s grown up in the last ten years, which I think the McLibel campaign helped to stimulate. And I think people are looking for a real alternative. Obviously, there’s still a lot of work to do. Multinationals and governments still dominate our lives for their own interests. We’re part of, you know, a number of different groups and campaigns that are trying to change things for the better. Mostly in the area where we live, which is in North London.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, David Morris, and Helen Steel. Who were sued by McDonald’s, and — report McDonald’s has said — the McDonald’s U.K. Office, that the case related to a claim made against the British government, it was therefore inappropriate for the company to comment on this case, or its outcome. The company said it’s impossible to note the allegations related to practices in the 1980’s. The world has moved on since then, and so has McDonald’s. David Morris, I’ll give you the final world.

DAVID MORRIS: I don’t think they’ve moved on at all. I think that it’s more of the same. Nothing has changed. I don’t think that multinational corporations, in fact, can change, because they’re only interested in one thing, which is making profits for their shareholders. And really, things are going to change. It will be because people, wherever they live, wherever they work, get organized and stand up for their rights and speak out, and really try to create a different kind of society, based on people’s needs rather than, you know, the power of multinationals and governments.

AMY GOODMAN: David Morris, Helen Steel, thanks for joining us from Britain.

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