from the pages of../


McLibel

by Eric R. Smith

 

"I think we've seen the true face of Ronald McDonald and it's not a smiling clown. It's a profiteering juggernaut that exploits workers, consumers, children and the environment to boost its shareholders profits," said Dave Morris a 42-yearold defendant in what could become the longest trial in Britain's history.

The plaintiff in the international "McLibel case is the $26 Billion a year McDonald's Corporation. The defendants are the $16,000 (7,000 pounds) a year, Morris and Helen Steel, two London Greenpeace activists. In 1989 the two are alleged to have distributed a six-page leaflet titled "What's wrong with McDonald's?" which the Corporation called libelous. The case, which has already become the longest civil trial in the history of the United Kingdom, celebrated its second anniversary June 28.

It has come to a halt temporarily as the Royal High Court recessed July 18 for 12 weeks to reconvene the second week in October when closing arguments will be presented. Both McDonald's UK spokesman Mike Love and McLibel Support Campaign coordinator Dan mills, have said that they expect the case to conclude by year's end.

Preparations for the closing arguments will be a daunting task, said Morris. The trial has logged over 270 days in court so far with over 180 witnesses and 40,000 pages of documents presented. It may be a recess for the court but not the two sides.

Morris a laid-off postman and Steel a part-time bartender are representing themselves, as UK law refuses council to the unemployed in libel cases.

The two of them have already spent well over their annual income in court costs and Morris is also supporting a 7-year-old son. Although they have periodically received formal legal advice, it is the defendants themselves who are trying their case without any legal experience prior to the trial.

Recent testimony in the trial reveals that the case was brought to court after agents hired by MacDonald’s infiltrated the London Greenpeace group in 1989. One of the spies testified for the defense, because of guilt about abusing the group's trust, Morris said.

This led London Greenpeace, which is not affiliated with Greenpeace International, into court in 1990. Three other London Greenpeace defendants chose to recant their statements and apologize rather than take the course of action that has led Steel and Morris through six years of full-time court work - without pay. Other accused parties, including the BBC, the Guardian, King George's Nature Conservancy, and Prince Phillip also apologized and recanted statements to avoid a trial.

McDonald's reportedly twice flew members of its board of directors to London from its Oak Brook, Illinois office to negotiate a settlement. But Morris and Steel refused, choosing instead to challenge "a whole system", as Morris explains it.

"McDonald's symbolizes a whole way of life based around hype," said Morris who has tried to downplay the media hype surrounding him and Steel. "In some respects a whole system is on trial. The public is being asked to look at the current economic system and the alternative being presented by campaigners ... The public should choose."

Indeed during the course of the trial the inner workings of a major corporation have been revealed. Everything from keeping an "enemies list" to the propaganda campaigns needed to cover itself have found their way into testimony.

It all began when the leaflets in question alleged that "McDonald's and Burger King are two of the many US corporations using lethal poisons to destroy vast areas of Central American rainforest to create grazing pastures for cattle to be sent back to the States as burgers and pet food and to provide fast-food packaging materials. The truth is it takes 800 square miles of forest just to keep them supplied with paper for one year." The leaflets bring together other accusations, as well, that had been circulating for at least ten years prior to the case.

These include union busting, health issues, "economic imperialism," and "exploiting children,"

McDonald's had to challenge the charges as they were becoming more widespread, said Love. "The action [by McDonald's] was brought to court ... to ensure people know what the facts are. The allegations were being reported back to us...schools, colleges, and church groups were taking information from London Greenpeace as true."

Despite the risk of bankruptcy and the Corporation's ability to rack up exorbitant court costs, Morris and Steel have chosen to prove otherwise. They have even filed a countersuit which is running simultaneously before the same judge. "We would not like to see a repetition of such a case again - it's the public's right to criticize the practices of multinational corporations who dominate our lives...We call for the abolition of the right of multinational corporations to sue for libel," the "McLibel Two" are reported to have said by the McLibel Support Campaign.

Mills contends that "The libel laws in the UK are probably the harshest in the world ... The burden is completely on the defendant ... The main effect of [UK] libel law takes place before the case (when the alleged act is committed].,,

Defendants must prove what they said was true in the UK This is counter to the U.S. where the prosecution must show that the defendants' statements were false.

Morris noted that a case of this kind in the United States "wouldn't have lasted two minutes."

For their part Steel and Morris have chosen to prove the truthfulness of their statements in the hopes that successful defense of their case will imply the guiltiness of their accuser in the countersuit.

This has become tedious as McDonald's has challenged every detail of the leaflets, said Mills. This, however, has allowed the defense to call every type of witness to support their claims.

Recent witnesses include Sue Branford, a specialist on Brazilian economic and social forces. Branford has visited the sites McDonald's is alleged to have procured their beef from along Brazil’s Araguaia River and its tributaries.

Mills said that, Branford's evidence contradicts McDonald's claim that they don't use beef procured from rainforest land.

When asked for comment on this Love said previously, "I can't comment on the issues in the case... [but] we regard every allegation [made by London Greenpeace in the leaflets as untrue."

According to a memo from McDonald's Australia that was leaked to the press last year the Corporation is trying to contain the impact of the case. The memo included statements such as: "Contain it as a UK issue."

McDonald's director of public affairs and communications, Walt Riker has done that. At the annual shareholders meeting in May he stressed that the UK office is handling the case. "It's an English issue," he said.

McDonald's apparently hasn't been significantly hurt by the case financially. At the same shareholders meeting McDonald's Chief Executive Mike Quinlan reported that total revenues had increased 12% over 1995. In the first quarter of 1996, 387 new restaurants were under construction. And one new restaurant was opened every four hours in 1995 according to the McDonald's shareholders report.

It was at this same meeting that McDonald's announced their marketing alliance with Disney Corporation. The Chief Executives of both companies have hailed the joint effort as the most ambitious ever marketing venture by the leading "family-oriented brands.,,

Meanwhile, McDonald's is reported to be spending about $10,000 a day on the case. At the shareholders meeting Quinlan was asked about the cost of the case but he refused to answer.

For Morris and Steel the outcome of the case could mean bankruptcy. Conviction would bar them from demonstrations against McDonald's in the future.

However, mills explained the judgment must consider 16 separate points, one for each allegation in the leaflets. And this must then be multiplied by two for the countersuit for a total of 32 charges.

Judgment could be split point by point in a combination of ways. Both sides could win some and lose some.

"We believe most of the evidence completely vindicates all of the critics of McDonald's Corporation," Morris said.

Morris and Steel have been called David to McDonald's Goliath. Morris tries to remain focused on the issues even as he eluded to this analogy when he said: "For the first time in history we have two members of the public on the one side and on the other side a multinational corporation. And they can't walk away from their critics. They can't rely on propaganda. They have to address the poor quality of their food ... and the damage of the environment."

"Whatever the verdict, we believe we've won," said Morris. "We weren't silenced. There's a 100 times more information about what McDonald’s stands for. More than two million leaflets have been distributed since the writs were served to me and Helen. In that respect it's a victory for freedom of speech and campaigners."

McDonald's could have prevented the distribution of those leaftlets, said Mills, if they had left London Greenpeace alone. The group was focusing on a number of issues in 1989 and the McDonald's campaign was winding down. A couple of months and the allegations would have been history, said Mills. Now the trial itself and the institution of fast food have become part of that history.

As far as the impact of the verdict is concerned Morris said, "Anything can happen at the end of the trial." If he and Steel lose any of their points they intend to appeal, he said. To the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

"We've been denied a jury. We've been denied counsel," Morris said. Both of which came about because "the libel laws in this country are unfair," he added.