A blow for corporate censorship

Two penniless protestors sued for libel by McDonald's emerge victorious after a 20-year struggle.

Published February 16, 2005 3:50PM (EST)

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 that led directly to Tuesday's ruling in the European Court of Human Rights, and to Dave Morris and Helen Steel's handing out more offending leaflets Tuesday 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," 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 was barely necessary for 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.

Morris and Steel, who earned about 3,500 pounds a year, had no legal training and were trying to defend themselves in one of the most complex branches of 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 Steel and Morris just to have got through the legal thickets of the 28 pretrial hearings and into the case proper, but they needed the help of the judge as well as the pro bono advice of Keir Starmer Q.C. 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 Q.C., a formidable 2,000-pounds-a-day libel specialist, a 1,000-pounds-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 favored 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 $40 billion a year, was unfairly using the British libel laws to sue two penniless people for libel over public interest issues that affect people's everyday lives. It was a clear case, they said, of the corporate censorship of opposition and debate backed by the British establishment.

Morris, who shot from the hip during the trial, in contrast to Steel's more incisive questioning, recalled Tuesday 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 Steel was suffering badly from stress, she was denied the shortest adjournment.

Tuesday 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," 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 Tuesday. Of five customers chosen at random, two had not only heard of the McLibel trial but agreed that what Steel and Morris had achieved was both important and significant for society and had moved on the debate about food and corporate behavior. The conundrum, perhaps, was that they had still chosen to eat there.

By John Vidal

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