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A Clash Of Cultures: The McLibel Case
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by Kevin Danaher

Is it possible for two poor but committed activists to punch a hole in the public relations façade of a giant corporation and get away with it? Don't be too quick to answer until you've heard the story of the McLibel Case.

In the early 1990s a small group of activists were passing out leaflets entitled "What's Wrong with McDonald's?" in front of McDonald's outlets in London. The leaflets claimed that McDonald's mistreated their workers, served food that was bad for people's health, brainwashed children, and destroyed rain forests by encouraging cattle production.

Instead of ignoring the protestors, McDonald's decided to silence them--and teach a lesson to critics of McDonald's worldwide--by charging them with libel and taking them to court. Britain's libel laws are skewed to favor the plaintiff, requiring the defendants to prove all the statements they have made. This advantage, in addition to McDonald's vast financial resources, led most observers to assume that the activists would quickly cave in.

Three of the activists did capitulate, agreeing to formally apologize and to cease distributing the leaflets. But two of the campaigners--Helen Steele and Dave Morris--decided to resist the company's bullying tactics and fight it out in court. Morris and Steele were not wealthy: he was a single father with no savings, she was a part-time bartender. Their combined income from minimum wage jobs was approximately $10,000 per year an amount McDonald's was spending on lawyers' fees every two days of the case.

The defendants had almost no funds for their defense. Although the group that had originally distributed the leaflets was called London Greenpeace, there was no connection with the well-known environmental group. Steele and Morris were basically on their own. In fact, they acted as their own legal representatives.

Yet shortly after the writs were served, a core group of supporters came together to launch the McLibel Support Campaign (MSC) in 1990. Initially focused on getting out the word about the trial and raising funds to support Morris and Steele, the MSC eventually reached millions of people around the world through its website (www.McSpotlight.org), featuring thousands of pages of transcripts from the trial, interviews, films, and ready-to-print versions of the "What's Wrong with McDonald's?" in a dozen languages. The website was accessed more than 7 million times in its first year of operation (1996).

The MSC also generated solidarity groups in more than ten other countries that conducted coordinated Days of Action against McDonald's outlets in their countries. They also organized mass marches in London and passed out thousands of copies of the offending leaflet. In addition, hundreds of newspapers and television stations around the world played up the 'David-vs-Goliath' aspect of the trial, with McDonald's usually coming off as a bully.

McDonald's suffered another p.r. black-eye when it came out during the trial that McDonald's had employed private spies to infiltrate the activists and report on their activities to McDonald's executives. One spy even initiated a sexual relationship with one of the anti-McDonald's activists as a way to get information.

McDonald's had originally brought the suit in an attempt to stifle public criticism of its operations. But in the end, as John Vidal's excellent book, McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial, states: "The most comprehensive collection of alternative material ever assembled on a multinational corporation is gaining global publicity ... and is totally beyond McDonald's control."

The case delved into a wider range of issues than any British law suit to date: human rights, animal welfare, food safety, the relation of diet to disease, the destruction of rain forests, and the impact of advertising on children.

The two activists had something that McDonald's' high-paid lawyers hadn't counted on: dogged perseverance. The trial set a record as the longest trial in English case law, three times the previously longest libel trial. Morris and Steele ended up sacrificing six years of their lives to fight a court case that at times seemed impossibly skewed against them. But despite the odds, they refused to capitulate, and they eventually dealt a serious blow to the public image of the fast-food giant.

At the surface level, Morris and Steele were defending themselves against the libel charges, which were likely to carry a hefty fine if they were convicted. But at a deeper level, they were presenting a critique of corporate culture. During the course of the trial, they would argue that McDonald's promotes a culture of misinformed consumption that leads to environmental destruction, mistreatment of workers, the brainwashing of children, and bad health resulting from the type of food being consumed.

McDonald's sought to portray the case narrowly, as simply a corporation defending itself against an unwarranted attack. But the defendants managed to raise large questions such as: Should corporations have the right to sue individuals? What responsibility do corporations have to tell the truth? Is justice so based on money that it is only truly available to the rich? Some of the questions raised by the trial--such as how large corporations generally treat the earth and its people--had never before been raised this pointedly in the British courts.

Perhaps most importantly, the trial starkly contrasted two opposing worldviews. The corporate view holds that as long as the company is not violating the law, what it chooses to sell, and the impact on people and the planet is a private concern and activists should back off. The activists' view held that ordinary citizens should have a say about corporate behavior and the impact corporations are having on our culture and the environment. So the overarching question posed by the trial was what kind of world do we really want?

McDonald's won the opening gambit by getting the judge to agree to a non-jury trial. McDonald's argued--and the judge concurred--that the evidence would be too technical and complex for average citizens. All of Morris and Steele's arguments about their rights to a jury trial and that the opinions of twelve citizens would be a better barometer of the public welfare than that of a single judge were swept aside. And to top it off, the judge who would hear the case, Mr. Justice Bell, was a thoroughly establishment figure with few sympathies toward the defendants and their values.

Yet after just six weeks of trial McDonald's officials contacted the defendants and asked them if they were interested in settling the case out of court. Morris and Steele were impressed that McDonald's' U.S. executives already seemed to have had enough bad publicity so they agreed to two meetings in late August 1994. McDonald's sent two board members, a senior executive and a senior legal advisor. They proposed to Morris and Steele the following settlement provisions: neither party would be expected to apologize; neither party would pay compensation to the other; Morris and Steele would agree not to make any more public statements about McDonald's; the company would make a donation (of an undisclosed amount) to a third party acceptable to both sides; and "the parties will at all times keep the terms set out in this Agreement confidential".

After considering these terms, Morris and Steele rejected the settlement offer. They saw themselves as fighting for free speech rights and the ability for public citizens to criticize corporate behavior without threats or intimidation. Agreeing to the terms of the settlement would effectively stifle Morris and Steele and go against the core principles they were fighting for. So the trial rolled on.

One of the more revealing parts of the trial dealt with the question of nutrition. The original pamphlet had simply asserted that there was a proven link between ailments such as cancer and heart disease and a low-fiber/high-fat diet such as that served by McDonald's. But the libel suit as filed by McDonald's required the defendants to prove that specific McDonald's foods caused specific diseases.

This portion of the trial revealed a startling memo from McDonald's own company files. It stated: "We can't really address or defend nutrition. We don't sell nutrition and people don't come to McDonald's for nutrition."

During extensive testimony by McDonald's own expert witness on nutrition and disease, Dr. Sydney Arnott, of St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, the doctor was read a statement by defendant Dave Morris. It read: "A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt and low in fiber, vitamins and minerals is linked with cancers of the breast and bowel, and heart disease." When asked what he thought of this statement, the doctor responded, "It is a reasonable thing to say." Then Morris told the doctor that the quote was taken directly from the leaflet that McDonald's had found so objectionable as to initiate a multi-million dollar law suit.

In his final ruling Justice Bell stated that while McDonald's food was not as bad as stated in the leaflet, the company's best customers--those who ate there most regularly throughout their lives--were at significant risk of contracting heart disease. The judge even chided McDonald's for misleading consumers on the nutrition issue: "I find that various advertisements, promotions and booklets have pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which McDonald's food, high in fat and saturated fat and animal products and sodium, and at one time low in fiber, did not match."

The Verdict

After 314 days of trial, Justice Bell issued his ruling in June 1997. He ruled mostly in favor of McDonald's, saying that some of the accusations in the leaflet were "particularly damaging" to McDonald's. Yet the judge awarded McDonald's only half of the £120,000 originally sought because some of the charges in the leaflet proved to be accurate. [The defendants would wind up paying nothing because McDonald's eventually abandoned efforts to get the money.]

Although the ruling of the court proved a formal victory for McDonald's, the outcome of the trial was contradictory. There were three key areas in which McDonald's' reputation was damaged by the judge's explicit criticism: the treatment of animals, the treatment of its workers, and the impact of McDonald's' propaganda on the minds of children.

On the issue of animal welfare, Justice Bell condemned methods of confinement and methods of slaughter used on chickens destined for McDonald's. He ruled that the severe restriction of movement of chickens "is cruel and McDonald's are culpably responsible for that cruel practice." The judge asserted that "a proportion of the chickens killed for McDonald's are still fully conscious when they have their throats cut; this is a cruel practice." Of course, the press played it as "McDonald's is cruel to animals."

As for workers' rights, the judge noted that McDonald's paid low wages and this tended to push down wages throughout the fast-food sector. He mentioned "the hard and sometimes noisy and hectic nature of the work, occasional long, extended shifts including late closes, inadequate and unreliable breaks during busy shifts, instances of autocratic management, lack of third-party representation in cases of grievance." He also criticized the practice of sending workers home early in their shift, without pay, when business was slow: "This practice is most unfair ... and in my judgment it shows where the ultimate balance lies ... between saving a few pounds and the interest of the individual, often young employees."

Justice Bell chided McDonald's for the way it mobilized the "pester power" of children to influence parental decision-making about where to eat: "McDonald's' advertising and marketing makes considerable use of susceptible young children to bring in customers, both their own and that of their parents who must accompany them, by pestering their parents."

John Vidal, in his book McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial, sums up the significance of the trial: ".....for the first time ever, the core practices of the world's largest food retailer, a $30 billion a year company with all the political, financial, and media muscle in the world, has been found seriously wanting in a court of law. The three phases ring out: Exploitation of children. Cruelty to animals. Low pay. How much more damning could it have been?"

Most of the media played the outcome of the trial as a Pyrrhic victory for McDonald's, a 'McBlunder' of huge proportions. The two press conferences that followed the trial were revealing. The McDonald's press conference was a staid and restricted affair, with the press badgering McDonald's executives with questions such as "How can you claim that as a victory?" The defendants' press conference was more like a wild celebration, with speeches and promises to continue the fight.

And continue they did. In January 1999 an appeal initiated by Morris and Steele went to court in London.

Conclusion

It would be hard to point to specific policy changes that McDonald's made because of the trial. Yet no corporation can view as a success litigation that soaks up millions of dollars, generates mountains of bad publicity, and ends up with a mixed verdict that criticizes the company in very fundamental ways. One immediate effect of the trial was that it gave corporate accountability campaigners confidence that McDonald's would not soon be likely to try to stifle its critics in so heavy-handed a manner.

As one of the defendants, Dave Morris, later wrote: "McDonald's efforts in the McLibel case to silence their critics were spectacularly defeated by the determination of grass roots campaigners. Leaflets, which were handed out in thousands in 1990 when we were sued, are now distributed in millions, including versions in at least 26 languages worldwide."

The trial left a substantial organizational legacy. The McLibel Support Campaign, originally set up in 1990 just to support Morris and Steele, took on a life of its own and is a constant grassroots thorn in the foot of the global food giant. More than two-thirds of McDonald's' 750 stores in the UK were picketed, with demonstrators using the same critical language contained in the original flyer. The Campaign's website (www.McSpotlight.org) has had tens of millions of hits and has spread anti-McDonald's campaigning tools to activists in every corner of the world. To date, there have been protests and campaigns against McDonald's in some thirty countries, ranging from Australia to Turkey. The new groups spawned by the McLibel case include a union-backed support group for McDonald's workers and a Kids Against McDonald's group.

In addition, the verdict gave momentum to civic groups working on issues covered by the court's ruling. Animal rights groups used the case as ammunition for an intensified campaign against cruelty to animals in the food industry. Labor rights activists and trade unions increased their efforts to secure minimum wage guarantees and other benefits for service sector workers. The National Food Alliance of England used the case to press for an end to advertising aimed at children. Local neighborhood associations stepped up their attacks on McDonald's for creating local litter and brainwashing children. The case also created momentum for groups struggling to change England's libel laws.

The McLibel case offers hope for the corporate accountability movement. Despite the overwhelming odds presented by the British legal system and the power of McDonald's, Morris and Steele scored many points in court and did serious damage to the reputation of the fast-food giant. In its attempt to punish people for criticizing it, McDonald's ended up shooting itself in the foot.

The McLibel case is more than just an isolated incident; it is a clear example of what can be accomplished by corporate campaigners if they persevere despite the odds against them. When McDonald's launched its libel complaint, few observers would have given the campaigners much chance of holding out against such a mammoth corporation. Yet Morris and Steele succeeded in tripping up the corporate giant by hammering away at a very large question: what kind of a world do we want to live in?