Taking advantage of British libel laws that put the burden of proof on the defendant, McDonald’s UK got in the habit of suing its critics into submission. But two members of London Greenpeace sued by the global food giant in 1990 for their leaflet “What’s Wrong With McDonald’s?” – detailing the environmental, health and labor practices of the corporation – refused to apologize or back away from their claims. In the longest court case in British history, Dave Morris, an ex-postal worker and single father, and Helen Steel, a part-time bartender, put McDonald’s on public trial. Representing themselves, backed only by a volunteer support team and individual donations, the duo faced down a team of high-paid corporate lawyers. In the process, they served as a catalyst for opposition to McDonald’s and multinational corporations.
In 2000, 10 years after the initial suit, they took the entire British legal system to the European Court of Human Rights, which unanimously found in 2005 that their rights to a fair trial and freedom of expression had been violated. The Indypendent spoke with Dave and Helen via email on the eve of the release of the film Mclibel, which documents their odyssey.
When you decided to stand trial did you have any idea it could serve to expose McDonald’s practices to the broader public?
Once the trial started, the case really seemed to connect with people and grew into this international phenomenon. Our goal has been to point out that behind the image of the smiling face of Ronald McDonald lies the reality – McDonald’s is only interested in making profits.
In the years since the trial finished McDonald’s profits have dropped, at least partly due to the increasing public awareness of the unhealthy nature of junk food and increased risks of obesity, heart disease and cancer as a result of this type of diet. McDonald’s have introduced so-called “healthy” options to their menus, but rather than this being through their concern for the public’s health, it is merely an attempt to capture customers who wouldn’t eat their usual fare.
The reality is that McDonald’s trumpets every minor change and use it as an opportunity for PR and greenwash, but fundamentally the whole system remains the same.
In some ways, your campaign against McDonald’s seems like a precursor of the anti-corporate globalization protests in Seattle and beyond. What do you think the link between the two is, if any?
There are definitely parallels between what activists in Seattle sought to achieve by bringing the multinational corporations under the glare of the media and what we hope to achieve every year on the 16th of October – which has been established as the World Day of Action against McDonald’s – with pickets and demonstrations all over the world.
People are increasingly aware of the need to think seriously about the food we and our children eat. Environmental and animal rights protests and campaigns are growing everywhere. People in poor countries are organizing themselves to stand up to multinationals and banks which dominate the world’s economy. Why not join the struggle for a better world?
We would always encourage people to stand up to bullies – whether corporations, governments, police or whatever – and refuse to be intimidated by legal or other threats. But it’s essential to get organized, to refuse to be marginalized or criminalized, and to constantly engage with wider opposition movements and the public in general. Any movements for change can expect to have to resist and overcome repression. We need to work out how best to transform court cases into arenas around which public debate and struggles can be stimulated and mobilized. “Natural justice” and “civil society” may be much stronger than we all realize. The rulings of supposedly powerful legal, state and corporate institutions can be successfully opposed.
What do you think will be the effects of your trial(s) on free-speech rights in England?
Although we won the case in Europe the ruling actually fudged most of the issues we had argued, and as a result may not have that much impact on freedom of speech. What has had and will have a far greater impact is the mass defiance campaign which has shown that oppressive laws can be rendered unworkable if people defy them.
Two days after the Judge had given his mixed ruling in 1997, and ordered us to pay McDonald’s damages, protests took place at over 500 UK stores and elsewhere around the world. Around 3 million leaflets had been distributed in the UK alone since the writs were served. This showed McDonald’s that it was futile to attempt to use the legal system to silence people, and they then abandoned their original claim for costs and an injunction to prevent leafleting. They have also never attempted to enforce the damages.
Overall the case spectacularly backfired for McDonald’s. They had issued legal proceedings as part of a long running and largely successful strategy of legal threats to their critics. Instead, this time the campaign had turned the tables and put the company on trial – all their business practices received massive scrutiny during the trial, and the leafleting mushroomed. They haven’t issued libel writs in the UK since, and also other companies have been warned not to “do a McLibel.”