Supriya Ghosh (Editor)

McLibel case

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Decided  19 June 1997
End date  February 15, 2005
McLibel case wwwmcspotlightorgmcwebpixcobhelendavecourtgif

Full case name  McDonald's Corp v Steel (No.4)
Prior action(s)  McDonald's Corporation v Steel & Morris (Trial) and 3 procedural appeals (McDonald's Corp v Steel No.1 - 3)
Subsequent action(s)  Steel & Morris v United Kingdom
Judge(s) sitting  Pill LJ, May LJ, Keen J

Similar  Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, Jersild v Denmark, Lingens v. Austria

Mcdonalds helen steel litter drop protest 1995 mclibel case


McDonald's Corporation v Steel & Morris [1997] EWHC QB 366, known as "the McLibel case", was an English lawsuit for libel filed by McDonald's Corporation against environmental activists Helen Steel and David Morris (often referred to as "The McLibel Two") over a factsheet critical of the company. Each of two hearings in English courts found some of the leaflet's contested claims to be libellous and others to be true. The partial nature of the victory, the David-and-Goliath nature of the case, and the drawn-out litigation embarrassed McDonald's. One of the authors of the "McLibel leaflet" was an undercover police officer who had infiltrated London Greenpeace.

Contents

The original case lasted nearly ten years which, according to the BBC, made it the longest-running case in English history. McDonald's announced that it did not plan to collect the £40,000 that it was awarded by the courts. Following the decision, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in Steel & Morris v United Kingdom that the pair had been denied a fair trial, in breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to a fair trial) and that their conduct should have been protected by Article 10 of the Convention, which protects the right to freedom of expression. The court awarded a judgement of £57,000 against the UK government. McDonald's itself was not involved in, or a party to, this action, as applications to the ECHR are independent cases filed against the relevant state. This judgement, given on 15 February 2005, represented the end of the pair's 20-year battle with McDonald's. Franny Armstrong and Ken Loach made a documentary film, McLibel, about the case.

Background

London Greenpeace was a small environmental campaigning group that existed between 1972 and 2001. They were not affiliated with the larger Greenpeace International organisation, which they declined to join as they saw it being too "centralised and mainstream for their tastes".

Libel charges

In 1990, McDonald's brought libel proceedings against five London Greenpeace supporters, Paul Gravett, Andrew Clarke and Jonathan O'Farrell, as well as Steel and Morris, for distributing the sheet on the streets of London. This case followed past instances in which McDonald's threatened to sue more than fifty organisations for libel, including Channel 4 television and several major publications. In all such cases, the media outlets settled, and offered apologies for the alleged libel.

Under English defamation law, the burden of proving (on balance of probability) the literal truth of every disparaging statement is on the defendant. This can be an expensive and time-consuming process. Three of the charged individuals (Gravett, Clarke and O'Farrell) chose to apologise as requested by McDonald's. Steel and Morris, however, chose to defend the case.

The two were denied legal aid, as was policy for libel cases, despite having very limited income. Thus, they had to represent themselves, though they received significant pro bono assistance. Steel and Morris called 180 witnesses, seeking to prove their assertions about food poisoning, unpaid overtime, misleading claims about how much McDonald's recycled, and "corporate spies sent to infiltrate the ranks of London Greenpeace". McDonald's spent several million pounds, while Steel and Morris spent £30,000; this disparity in funds meant Steel and Morris were not able to call all the witnesses they wanted, especially witnesses from South America who were intended to support their claims about McDonald's activities in that continent's rainforests.

In its libel allegation McDonald's asserted that all claims in the pamphlet were false. They found it difficult to support this position despite the indirectness of some of the claims. The case eventually became a media circus. McDonald's executives, including Ray Cesca, entered the witness box, enabling cross-examination by the defendants.

In June 1995 McDonald's offered to settle the case (which "was coming up to its [tenth] anniversary in court") by donating a large sum of money to a charity chosen by the two. They further specified that they would drop the case if Steel and Morris agreed to "stop criticising McDonald's". Steel and Morris secretly recorded the meeting, in which McDonald's 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.

High Court

The case was adjudicated by Hon. Mr Justice Rodger Bell. On 19 June 1997, Bell delivered a more than 1,000-page decision largely in favour of McDonald's, summarised by a 45-page paper read in court. Steel and Morris were found liable on several points, but the judge also found that some of the points in the factsheet were true. McDonald's considered this a legal victory, though it was tempered by the judge's endorsement of some of the allegations in the sheet. Specifically, Bell ruled that McDonald's endangered the health of their workers and customers by "misleading advertising", that they "exploit children", that they were "culpably responsible" in the infliction of unnecessary cruelty to animals, and that they were "antipathetic" to unionisation and paid their workers low wages. 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.

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.

In September 1998, the pair sued the Metropolitan Police for disclosing confidential information to investigators hired by McDonald's and received £10,000 and an apology for the alleged disclosure.

Court of Appeal

An appeal began on 12 January 1999 and lasted 23 court days, ending on 26 February. The case was heard in Court 1 of the Court of Appeal in the Royal Courts of Justice. The case was adjudicated by Lord Justices Pill and May and Mr Justice Keane. The defendants represented themselves in court, assisted by first year law student Kalvin P. Chapman (King's College London). McDonald's were represented by libel lawyer Richard Rampton QC, and a junior barrister, Timothy Atkinson, and Ms Pattie Brinley-Codd of Barlow, Lyde & Gilbert. Steel and Morris filed a 63-point appeal. They had requested a time extension, but were denied. The verdict for the appeal was handed down on 31 March, in Court 1 at the Royal Courts of Justice.

The judges ruled that it was fair comment to say that McDonald's employees worldwide "do badly in terms of pay and conditions" and 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". They further stated that this last finding "must have a serious effect on their trading reputation since it goes to the very business in which they are engaged. In our judgment, it must have a greater impact on the respondents' [McDonald's] reputation than any other of the charges that the trial judge had found to be true".

The Court of Appeal also stated that it had "considerable sympathy" with the defendants' submissions that the leaflet meant "that there is a respectable (not cranky) body of medical opinion which links a junk food diet with a risk of cancer and heart disease", that 'this link was accepted both in literature published by McDonald's themselves and by one or more of McDonald's own experts and in medical publications of high repute', and that therefore 'that should have been an end of this part of the case'. They ruled against the defendants on the allegation that McDonald's food was a carcinogen.

As a result of their further findings against the Corporation, the three Lord Justices reduced Mr Justice Bell's award of £60,000 damages to McDonald's by £20,000. The court ruled against the argument by Steel and Morris that multinational corporations should no longer be able to sue for libel over public interest issues; they believed "that may be seen as an argument of some substance", but ultimately rejected it, on grounds that it was a matter for Parliament. Steel and Morris announced their intention to appeal over these and other points to the House of Lords, and then take the UK government to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

In response to the verdict, David Pannick QC said in The Times: "The McLibel case has achieved what many lawyers thought impossible: to lower further the reputation of our law in the minds of all right thinking people."

Steel and Morris appealed to the Law Lords, arguing that their right to legal aid had been unjustly denied. When the Law Lords refused to accept the case, the pair formally retained solicitor Mark Stephens and barrister (later Director of Public Prosecutions (England and Wales)), Keir Starmer QC to file 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, and setting out a highly detailed case for what they believed to be the oppressive and unfair nature of UK libel laws in general, and in their case in particular. In September 2004, this action was heard by the ECHR. Lawyers for Steel and Morris argued that the lack of legal aid had breached the pair's right to freedom of expression and to a fair trial.

European Court of Human Rights

On 15 February 2005, the European Court of Human Rights 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 Steel and Morris £57,000 in compensation. In their ruling, 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); they also ruled that the trial was biased because of the defendants' comparative lack of resources and what they believed were complex and oppressive UK libel laws.

In particular the Court held:

in a democratic society even small and informal campaign groups, such as London Greenpeace, must be able to carry on their activities effectively and that there exists a strong public interest in enabling such groups and individuals outside the mainstream to contribute to the public debate by disseminating information and ideas on matters of general public interest such as health and the environment.

The safeguard afforded by Article 10 to journalists in relation to reporting on issues of general interest is subject to the proviso that they act in good faith in order to provide accurate and reliable information in accordance with the ethics of journalism (...), and the same principle must apply to others who engage in public debate.

It is true that large public companies inevitably and knowingly lay themselves open to close scrutiny of their acts and, as in the case of the businessmen and women who manage them, the limits of acceptable criticism are wider in the case of such companies.

In response to the European Court of Human Rights' 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.

Post court developments

In the course of the UK undercover policing relationships scandal it was revealed that one of the authors of the "McLibel leaflet" was Bob Lambert, an undercover police officer who infiltrated London Greenpeace and that Helen Steel's partner for two years was also an undercover officer.

McDonald's response

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

On a website aiming to state its view on issues raised about it, McDonald's stated that the case is in the past and the issues more so, and that both sides in it have moved on (although Morris and Steel did continue related litigation).

Media

A feature-length documentary film, McLibel, was made about the case by Franny Armstrong and Ken Loach in 1997. An extended version was produced in 2005.

In 1999, Naomi Klein noted that the reach of the campaign was tiny compared with the level of ensuing controversy.

References

McLibel case Wikipedia