Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
McLibel - Dave Morris and Helen Steel
Helen Steel and Dave Morris vs corporate fast food giant. Photo: Nick Cobbing.

A Proper Grilling

The McLibel trial was one of the most vociferously fought and successful direct actions of modern times. A gargantuan battle between one of the worlds largest corporations and two penniless British activists is now entering the final furlong. Jim Carey presents a précis of a stunning saga as it draws to a climax that could change British libel laws forever.

12th December 2004

"The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years," opined Den Fujita. "If we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years we will become taller, our skin become white and our hair blonde".

Were these not the words of a Japanese native, this statement would surely have been slammed as racist. But, as president of McDonald's Japan, Fujita's sense of national identity runs a subordinate second to his loyalty to the corporation. And Paul Preston, head of McDonald's UK, displayed similar disposition when he asserted: "McDonald's isn't a job, it's a life...McDonald's employees have ketchup in their veins."

Far from being just the ludicrous ramblings of a few myopic corporate individuals, however, Preston and Fujita's skewed sense of personal priority is in rapid ascendancy and increasingly influential as multinationals manoeuvre ever-larger proportions of the global economy. However, most of the convoluted £multi-million strategies driving these manoeuvres rarely escape the confidentiality of the boardroom. And so, majorly influential though they are on our lives, we get to know little of their insidious design until long after the horse has bolted.

But there are exceptions and none more so than one of the most extensive corporate grillings ever, the McLibel trial. McDonald's must rue the day they threatened one libel suit too many back in 1990 and so precipitated what Channel Four News subsequently referred to as "the most disastrous PR exercise ever mounted by a multinational company".

In its attempt to cut the tongue from even the smallest of its critics, the burger giant sued Dave Morris and Helen Steel, two penniless political activists, for their alleged involvement in distributing a leaflet called What's Wrong with McDonald's? The Corporation were confident their notorious legal department would triumph with ease against such small fry. Afterall, the McDonald's Corporation had forced grovelling public apologies from everyone theyd ever sued largely because noone could afford to fight them in court. But Helen Morris and Dave Steel were made of sterner stuff and decided to fight all the way. Their determination resulted in acres of media coverage adverse to McDonald's reputation as the longest trial in British legal history resulted in two dramatic years of corporate cross-examination and forced disclosure. The 314 day trial was followed with a 23 day appeal hearing and finally a day in the European Court of Human Rights. McDonald's hired one of the best libel QCs in the UK at the cost of over £2000 a day, spent over £10 million on the case, and made two unsuccessful attempts to buy the defendants submission. With legal aid denied to any defendant under British libel law, Steel and Morris fought the convoluted legal case themselves, wading through 18,000 court transcripts and 40,000 pages of documents and witness statements. They relied on a fund amounting to just £35,000, donated and raised by activist empathisers. As a result of their tenacity and guile, the intricate strategies and tactics of one of the worlds largest, and typically aggressive corporations, spewed out of High Court Room 35 and into the public domain.

The McDonald's Corporation generates an annual turnover of US$26 billion, operating 18,500 burger bars in 89 countries and opening nine new outlets a day. The strategy behind such global expansion is ambitiously aggressive; its success envied and emulated throughout the corporate world. As such McDonald's is a portentous example of a new global superpower. The critical leaflet central to the McLibel trial contains information on a wide variety of issues, ranging from McDonald's involvement in rainforest destruction to poor employment conditions, the insidious strategies of child advertising to the poor treatment of animals. With such a wide variety of urgent social issues subjected to the close scrutiny of a high court, the two defendants used every opportunity the trial presented to force disclosure of revealing internal corporate documents. In the witness box they can't turn around and walk away, ignore your questions and avoid telling you what's going on, says Helen Steel. You can force them to give an answer, so it is a unique opportunity. One of the key issues investigated by the trial was the advanced techniques used to inflate the corporation's product image. McDonald's spends a massive US$1.4 billion each year on marketing. According to a recent survey of two thousand people in several different countries, the corporation's golden-arches logo is now a more globally recognised symbol than the Christian cross. Delving deep beneath the mechanisms of this corporate foist, the McLibel trial spent many months investigating the reality behind claims found in the Corporation's adverts, as well as the psychological techniques adopted by their marketing strategists.

Chief among the claims is McDonald's insistence that their products provide a 'nutritious' and 'healthy' meal. When Dr Sydney Arnott, a top cancer expert, appeared on behalf of McDonald's, he found himself agreeing that: A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt, and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals is linked with cancers of the breast and bowel, and heart disease. The court then heard that this statement had come from the allegedly libellous leaflet. Dr Neal Barnard, president of the US Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine then told the court: Many of the products sold at McDonald's are high in fat and cholesterol and low in fibre and certain vitamins, and as a result contribute to heart disease, certain forms of cancer and other diseases.

For the Corporation, these were embarrassing testimonies, exacerbated further by the court disclosure of an internal company document from a high-level meeting in 1986, stating: McDonald's should attempt to deflect the basic negative thrust of our critics... How do we do this? By talking moderation and balance. We can't really address or defend nutrition. We don't sell nutrition and people don't come to McDonald's for nutrition. However, in the McDonald's Nutrition Guide, which is still given to the public at its outlets, the corporation claims: Every time you eat McDonald's, you'll eat good, nutritious food. Such inconsistencies resulted in three US state attorney generals sending a warning to the corporation. Stephen Gardner, former Assistant Attorney General of Texas, appeared in the McLibel witness stand to read from their letter: The Attorney Generals of Texas, California and New York have concluded our joint review of McDonald's recent advertising campaign which claims that McDonald's food is nutritious. Our mutual conclusion is that this advertising campaign is deceptive. We therefore request that McDonald's immediately desist further use of this advertising campaign. The reason for this is simple: McDonald's food is, as a whole, not nutritious. The intent and result of the current campaign is to deceive customers into believing the opposite... The new campaign appears intended to pull the wool over the public's eyes.

The unmasking of McDonald's hidden strategy was then completed with a thorough examination of its designs on the most vulnerable consumer age group. According to David Green, senior vice-president of McDonald's Marketing, [Children] are virgin ground as far as marketing is concerned. The McDonald's internal Operations Manual was read out in court: Children are often the key decision-makers concerning where a family goes to eat... [offering toys] is one of the best things... to make them loyal supporters, using McDonald's birthday parties as an important way to generate added sales and profits' and the clown Ronald McDonald as 'a strong marketing tool. Despite UK advertising codes forbidding commercials which manipulate the emotions of children, the provocation of what is known in the industry as 'pester power' is widespread. The Operations Manual further states: Ronald loves McDonald's and McDonald's food. And so do children, because they love Ronald. Remember, children exert a phenomenal influence when it comes to restaurant selection. This means that you should do everything you can to appeal to children's love for Ronald and McDonald's. In conjunction with its advertising, the corporation also runs a wide variety of strategic schools projects, including education packs, free teacher-resource materials and good behaviour schemes with free burgers as a reward. These, and many other such schemes, fortify the McDonald's experience in the minds of children, an intention clearly admitted to by McDonald's advertising executives under cross-examination.

The court then heard how Geoffrey Guiliano, the actor who played Ronald McDonald the Clown in the 1980s, eventually resigned and went public with his regrets: "I brainwashed youngsters into doing wrong. I want to say sorry to children everywhere".

Each year in South America, an area the size of Wales is stripped of virgin tropical rainforest, primarily to provide land upon which the global beef market can indulge its appetite for low-cost cattle. As the world's largest single user of beef, McDonald's has worked hard to avoid implication in what is widely recognised as an issue of major public concern. All hell broke loose in the McDonald's camp when Prince Philip met a McDonald's executive at a World Wildlife Fund function in Canada in 1983. According to a letter disclosed during the McLibel trial, Philip said to the executive: So you are the people who are tearing down the Brazilian rainforests and breeding cattle. The executive apparently told Philip he was mistaken, to which the reply was rubbish. According to the letter, Philip then stormed away.

To avert a potential PR disaster, Fred Turner, chairman of the McDonald's Corporation, sent out a worldwide edict that no McDonald's plant was to use Brazilian beef. The corporation then sent a letter to the World Wildlife Fund saying: McDonald's worldwide is not involved in any manner in dealing with rainforests, or their removal, or in buying beef as a result of cattle that have been grazing in areas that formerly were rainforests. The World Wildlife Fund later wrote saying the corporation was exonerated. However, a letter disclosed in court during the McLibel trial revealed that despite the 'political' ramifications of ignoring the worldwide edict, the managing director of McDonald's UK gave covert permission to McKey meat suppliers to provide its UK burger bars with Brazilian beef. Furthermore, letters from McDonald's Costa Rican meat suppliers reveal the company reared cattle on former tropical rainforest land. The court was then shown film footage in which a representative of the Costa Rican company stated that they had supplied beef for use in McDonald's US outlets.

An expert witness in animal rearing, appearing on behalf of the corporation, also admitted that chickens reared for chicken McNuggets and McChicken sandwiches are packed into vast windowless sheds, with 44 per cent of them developing leg abnormalities and other health problems. Young chicks, he told the court, were routinely dosed with antibiotics in an attempt to reduce disease. The court also heard how hens providing eggs for McDonald's Egg McMuffins were kept in battery cages with no access to sunlight and less than an 'A4 sheet of paper' as space for each bird. Under cross-examination, McDonald's UK chief purchasing officer described these conditions as pretty comfortable.

Poor conditions then became the subject of a different investigation, this time concerning the corporation's employees. The term 'McJobs' is now so commonly used it is only one step away from English dictionary citation. Deployed throughout the media in a variety of contexts, the word has become synonymous with poorly paid, dehumanising work devoid of employment rights. However, when the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) revealed it was thinking of putting the word McJobs in its dictionaries, McDonald's threatened to sue once again and the OED went quiet on the matter.

During the McLibel trial Sid Nicholson, McDonald's UK vice-president, admitted in court that for staff aged 21 or over, the corporation couldn't pay any lower wages without falling foul of the law. Also appearing in the witness box was an ex-McDonald's employee from Canada who recalled how McDonald's management ordered its employees to lie down in the snow to form the word 'no', affirming the corporation's view of unions. Indeed, despite claiming that McDonald's is not anti-union, the corporation's UK vice-president disclosed under cross-examination that the company did not allow its workers to collect subscriptions... put up notices... pass out any leaflets... organise a meeting for staff to discuss conditions at the store on the premises... or to inform the union about conditions inside the stores. Contravention is considered gross misconduct and a summary sackable offence. An ex-McDonald's employee and representative of the French trade union CFDT also informed the court of how five McDonald's managers were arrested in Lyon in 1994 and charged with trying to rig union elections. However, when right-winger Jacques Chirac became president in 1995, he pardoned all five without the case going to court.

Interestingly, Sir Bernard Ingham is hired for his PR advice as non-executive director of McDonald's UK. As press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, Ingham was the propaganda architect behind the strategic disempowerment of British trade unions. Indeed, Thatcher formally opened McDonald's UK headquarters in her Finchley constituency, and her constituency manager at the time, Mike Love, is now head of public relations for McDonald's UK. McDonald's decision to avoid buying British beef during the BSE crisis led to a £350 million hole in the UK beef market. Unbeholden to any nation state, the corporation once again demonstrated the political impact of its decision-making. Courting McDonald's with the aim of reversing its position on British beef became one of the governments key target points in recovering from the crisis.

In a separate but related case, the tenacious McLibel Two sued the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, claiming damages for misfeasance in public office, breach of confidence and breach of their right to privacy. The actionable case came to light during the full McLibel trial when Sid Nicholson, McDonald's ex-head of security in the UK and a former met officer, admitted in court that McDonald's security team were all ex-policemen who still had easy access to police records and had made use of that access. He inadvertently informed the court that McDonald's security department had obtained specific information about Dave Morris and Helen Steel from currently serving Met officers. The case concluded with the Metropolitan Police issuing a public apology and stumping up £10,000 in an out of court settlement.

When Mr Justice Bell delivered his verdict on the full trial in June 1997, there were some damning inditements of McDonald's practices in his two hour disposition. He ruled that the Corporation did indeed exploit children with their advertising strategy, are strongly antipathetic to unionisation, are "culpably responsible for animal cruelty", have published claims about their fast food which "pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which their food (high in fat & salt etc) did not match"; and "pay low wages, helping to depress wages in the catering trade." However he also ruled that not all of Steel and Morriss accusations had been proven with primary source evidence and that they had therefore libelled McDonald's and should pay damages of £60,000 (half the amount sought by the Corporation).

When the McLibel Two appealed the verdict in 1999, they achieved significant advances in the judges original ruling when the appeal court ruling strengthened the condemnation of McDonald's practices contained in the original judges verdict. Lord Justices Pill, May and Keane ruled that it was fair comment to say that McDonald's employees worldwide "do badly in terms of pay and conditions", and that it is true that "if one eats enough McDonald's food, one's diet may well become high in fat etc., with the very real risk of heart disease.'" The £60,000 damages was reduced to £40,0000 but with the McLibel Two refusing to pay, the Corporation cut its heavy losses and announced that it would not pursue the matter any further.

But for the McLibel Two this was not yet the end of the matter.

In September 2001, they took the British government to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) claiming heavily imbalanced libel laws in the UK were an affront to free speech. Without any access to legal aid, the defendants had been required to prove every one of their allegations with primary source evidence. This, they argued, meant that large corporations were effectively beyond public criticism even though their strategies and executions have a majorly significant impact on the lives of the British public. This time qualifying for legal aid and therefore professional legal representation, Steel and Morriss case was presented to the ECHR in Strasbourg in September 2004. A verdict on the matter, which could completely overhaul Britains archaic libel system were it to go against the British government, is expected at the end of 2004/beginning of 2005.

There are very few genuine forums for corporate accountability and scrutiny in which money has not bought allegiance and bypassed the truth. Indeed, with the gargantuan amounts of money available to corporate marketing departments, the only significant trouble on the horizon for any corporatrion is the public exposure of embarrassing truths; brand image being both the strength and the achilles' heel of any corporation. For this reason McDonald's made two separate settlement offers to the McLibel Two, flying over US executives and offering sizeable sums of cash if the defendants would finish the case. In refusing their offers, the two defendants proved themselves to be different from the likes of Den Fujita, Paul Preston, Sir Bernard Ingham and their increasingly prevalent ilk. Positioned beyond the reach of even the largest multinational corporation, their loyalties are not for sale. And for the last fourteen years those loyalties have been deployed on the absolute frontline of the struggle between community and corporation.

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For the full list of Squall articles about the McLibel Trial click here

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