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McLibel case

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Helen Steel and David Morris, the defendants in the McLibel case, at the launch of
Helen Steel and David Morris, the defendants in the McLibel case, at the launch of

The McLibel case is the colloquial term for McDonald's Restaurants v Morris & Steel, a long-running[1] English court action for libel filed by McDonald's Corporation against environmental activists Helen Steel and David Morris (often referred to as "The McLibel Two") over a pamphlet critical of the company. The original case lasted seven years, making it the longest-running court action in English history.

Although McDonald's had technically won two separate hearings of the case in the English courts, the partial nature of the victory and drawn-out litigation has turned the case into a matter of serious embarrassment for the company. Because of this, McDonald's has repeatedly announced that it has no plans to collect the £40,000 it was awarded by the courts. Since then, certain aspects of the trial have been declared by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to be in violation of the Convention on Human Rights and on 15 February 2005, the pair's 20-year battle (and 11-year court battle) with the company concluded when the ECHR ruled that the original case had breached Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered that the UK government pay the McLibel couple £57,000 in compensation.


[edit] History

[edit] Publication

Beginning in 1986, "London Greenpeace", a small environmental campaigning group (not to be confused with the larger Greenpeace International organisation, which they declined to join as they saw it being too "centralized and mainstream for their tastes"[2]), distributed a pamphlet entitled What’s wrong with McDonald’s: Everything they don’t want you to know.

This publication made a number of allegations against McDonald's, including that the corporation

  • sells unhealthy food;
  • exploits its work force;
  • practices unethical marketing of its products, especially towards children;
  • is cruel to animals;
  • needlessly uses up resources;
  • contributes to poverty in the Third World by forcing peasants either to leave their land in favour of export crops which could satisfy McDonald's needs, or to convert their land to raise cattle;
  • creates pollution with its packaging; and
  • is at least partly responsible for destroying the South American rain forests.[3]

Before McDonald's responded, the pamphlet was regarded as something of a failure.[4] Now, though, the pamphlet has been translated into over twenty-six languages.[citation needed]

[edit] Original case

In 1990, McDonald's responded by bringing libel proceedings against five London Greenpeace supporters, Paul Gravett, Andrew Clarke and Jonathan O'Farrell, as well as Steel and Morris, for distributing the pamphlet on the streets of London. The case was assigned to Judge Rodger Bell.

Although none of these individuals was alleged to be the author of the pamphlet, and the leaflets were distributed in a number of other countries, the group faced large financial penalties and a difficult court battle unless they retracted and apologised for its content and ceased its distribution. Under English law, the burden of proving (on balance of probability) the literal truth of each and every disparaging statement is on the defendant. For a number of years, McDonald's was thus perceived to have been able to use the English libel laws to prevent public criticism being made against them. During the 1980s, the company threatened to sue more than fifty organisations, including Channel 4 television and several major publications. Because of such precedents, and because of the considerable financial and legal resources McDonald's could bring to bear, three of the charged individuals (Gravett, Clarke and O'Farrell) felt that they had no choice but to apologise as demanded; McDonald's typically uses this libel tactic in the United Kingdom, and settles for a formal apology in court or an informal one.[5] Steel and Morris, on the other hand, refused to back down and decided to fight the case.

However, the two had no formal post-secondary school education, and few financial resources; Morris was an out-of-work postal employee from Tottenham and Steel a community gardener[1] for Haringey Borough Council. Furthermore, they were denied Legal Aid by the courts on the basis that it wasn't policy for libel cases. Although the pair were deemed no legal match for McDonald's enormous legal assets, they represented themselves, receiving much free legal advice, and doing enormous amounts of research in their spare time; they would eventually call 180 witnesses to prove their assertions about food poisoning, unpaid overtime, misleading claims about how much McDonald's recycled, and even about how McDonald's hired "corporate spies sent to infiltrate the ranks of London Greenpeace".[6] McDonald's spent millions of pounds, while the protesters had £30,000 raised from public donations. The lack of funds meant Morris and Steel were not able to call all the witnesses they wanted, especially witnesses from South America who would have testified in support of the claims about the destruction of the rainforest. [7]

A major mistake by McDonald's and their lawyers when preparing the case was asserting that all claims in the pamphlet were false. Although some of the claims were actually quite strong[8] — the assertion that the destruction of the Amazonian rain forests was in part due to McDonald's demand for cattle (for burgers), for instance — other claims were less controversial. The corporation found itself on trial before the British people and the world, particularly with regard to those claims involving labour practices and the nutritional content of McDonald's food. The case became a media circus, especially when top McDonald's executives were forced to take the stand and be questioned by the two non-lawyers.

In June 1995, McDonald's offered to settle the case (which "was coming up to its first anniversary in court"[9]) by donating a large sum of money to a charity chosen by the two; in addition, they would drop the case if Steel and Morris agreed to "stop criticising McDonald's".[9] Steel and Morris secretly recorded the meeting, in which McDonald's executives said the pair could criticise McDonald's privately to friends but must cease talking to the media or distributing leaflets. Steel and Morris wrote a letter in response saying they would agree to the terms if McDonald's ceased advertising its products and instead only recommended the restaurant privately to friends. [10]

On 19 June 1997, Mr Justice Bell delivered a more than 1000-page decision largely in favour of McDonald's,[1] summarised by a 45-page paper read in court. [11] Steel and Morris had proven the truth of three fifths of the claims in the original leaflet but were found guilty of libel on several points. [12]Although a legal victory for McDonald's, the case had long since been deemed a Pyrrhic victory for the company, as Bell's decision found that the defendants proved many of the points made in the London Greenpeace pamphlet. Thus, Bell noted that McDonald's did endanger the health of their workers and customers by "misleading advertising", that they "exploit children", that they are "culpably responsible" in the infliction of unnecessary cruelty to animals, and that they are "antipathetic" to unionisation and pay their workers low wages.[13] Furthermore, although the decision awarded £60,000 to the company, McDonald's legal costs were much greater, and the defendants lacked the funds to pay it. Steel and Morris immediately appealed the decision. Worse, evidence that surfaced during the trial regarding McDonald's business practices proved extremely embarrassing for the company. It has been estimated that the case has cost McDonald's £10,000,000.[14]

In 1998, a documentary film was made about the case, also titled McLibel. This was updated in 2005 after the verdict of the final appeal.

[edit] Appeals and further cases

Later, the defendants learned McDonald's had not only hired spies to infiltrate London Greenpeace, but that the company had hired agents to break into their offices and steal documents[15].

In September 1998, the pair sued Scotland Yard for disclosing confidential information to investigators hired by McDonalds and received £10,000 and an apology for the alleged disclosure.[16].

In March 1999, the appeals court further supported allegations in the London Greenpeace leaflet that McDonald's mistreated their workers[17], and that McDonald's food was a cause of heart disease. As a result, the award was reduced to £40,000. By this time McDonald's had no intention of collecting the money, and had abandoned any plans to block distribution of the leaflet.

[edit] European Court of Human Rights

Steel and Morris appealed to the Law Lords that their right to legal aid (to ensure a fair trial) had been denied. When that body refused to hear the case, the pair filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), contesting the UK government's policy that legal aid was not available in libel cases. In September 2004, the human rights action was heard by the ECHR. Lawyers for the McLibel Two argued that the original trial pitted a poor, powerless pair of individuals against the wealth and might of a large corporation and breached the pair's right to freedom of expression and to a fair trial.

On 15 February 2005, the ECHR ruled that the original case had breached Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered that the UK government pay the McLibel Two £57,000 in compensation. In making their decision, the ECHR criticised the way in which UK laws had failed to protect the public right to criticise corporations whose business practices affect people's lives and the environment (which violates Article 10) and criticised the biased nature of the trial due to the defendants' lack of legal aid, the complex and oppressive nature of the UK libel laws, and the imbalance in resources between the parties to the case (which violates Article 6). In response to the ECHR's decision, Steel and Morris issued the following press release;

Having largely beaten McDonald's... we have now exposed the notoriously oppressive and unfair UK laws. As a result of the... ruling today, the government may be forced to amend or scrap some of the existing UK laws. We hope that this will result in greater public scrutiny and criticism of powerful organisations whose practices have a detrimental effect on society and the environment. The McLibel campaign has already proved that determined and widespread grass roots protests and defiance can undermine those who try to silence their critics, and also render oppressive laws unworkable. The continually growing opposition to McDonald's and all it stands for is a vindication of all the efforts of those around the world who have been exposing and challenging the corporation's business practices. [18]

The 2005 film quoted McDonald's as offering little comment on the European Court decision other than to point out that it was the Government and not McDonalds who was the losing party and that "times have changed and so has McDonald's."

[edit] See also

  • McDonald's legal cases
  • Strategic lawsuit against public participation
  • Maxime, McDuff & McDo - a 2002 Quebec documentary film about the unionising of a McDonald's in Montreal. They were successful, but McDonald's quickly shut down the franchise after the union won.
  • Gunns 20 - Gunns Limited v Marr & Ors[11], a current Australian case, filed by Gunns (a major forestry company with main office in Tasmania) in the Supreme Court of Victoria, against 20 individuals and organisations for over 7.8 million dollars.

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b "For 313 days in court - the longest trial in English history - an unemployed postal worker (Morris) and a community gardener (Steel) went to war with chief executives from the largest food empire in the world." pg 389 of No Logo
  2. ^ pg 388 of No Logo
  3. ^ What's wrong with McDonald's?. McSpotlight.
  4. ^ "London Greenpeace's campaign was winding down, and only a few hundred copies of the contentious leaflet had ever been distributed." pg 391 of No Logo
  5. ^ "Over the past 15 years, McDonald's has threatened legal action against more than 90 organisations in the U.K., including the BBC, Channel 4, the Guardian, The Sun, the Scottish TUC, the New Leaf Shop, student newspapers, and a children's theatre group. Even Prince Philip received a stiff letter. All of them backed down and many formally apologised in court." from "Why Won't British TV Show a Film about McLibel?", Franny Armstrong, 19 June 1998, The Guardian; as quoted in No Logo.
  6. ^ pg 389 of No Logo
  7. ^ McLibel film, 1998
  8. ^ "In many ways, the case against McDonald's is less compelling than the ones against Nike and Shell, both of which are supported by hard evidence of large-scale human suffering. With McDonald's the evidence was less direct and, in some ways, the issues more dated." pg 388 of No Logo -- On the contrary, much of the third world, labor and social-exploitation comes from McDonalds; half hour into 'Santas Workshop.'
  9. ^ a b pg 387 of No Logo, 1st ed.
  10. ^ McLibel film, 1998
  11. ^ "On June 19, 1997, the judge finally handed down the verdict....It felt like an eternity to most of us sitting there, as Judge Rodger Bell read out his forty-five-page ruling - a summary of the actual verdict, which was over a thousand pages long. Although the judge deemed most of the pamphlet's claims too hyperbolic to be acceptable (he was particularly unconvinced by its direct linking of McDonald's to "hunger in the 'Third World'"), he deemed others to be based on pure fact." pg 389-390 of No Logo.
  12. ^ McLibel film, 1998
  13. ^ Judgement Day Verdict - Highlights. McSpotlight (1997-06-19). Retrieved on 2006-07-14.
  14. ^ BBC News. "McLibel pair get police payout". Retrieved on 2007-05-12.
  15. ^ "". "Story of the agents infiltrations". Retrieved on 2007-05-12.
  16. ^ BBC News. "McLibel pair get police payout". Retrieved on 2007-05-12.
  17. ^ Specifically, the appeals court supported the claims "concerning nutrition and health risks and on the allegations about pay and conditions for McDonald's employees." As quoted on page 390 of No Logo.
  18. ^ Victory for McLibel 2 against UK Government. McSpotlight (2005-02-15). Retrieved on 2006-07-14.

[edit] Further reading

  • "McLibel in London", 20 March 1995, Fortune.
  • "Anti-McDonald's Activists Take Message Online", 27 March 1996, Associated Press.
  • "Activists Win Partial Victory in Appeal Over McDonald's Libel Case", 31 March 1999, Associated Press.
  • "Guess Who's Still in Trouble?" Newsletter #9, October 1997, Campaign for Labor Rights.
  • "Few Nuggets and Very Small Fries", pg 22; 20 June 1997, The Guardian.

[edit] External links

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