Albion Monitor /News

[Editor's note: In October, the Albion Monitor will present a major feature on the "McLibel" trial and issues behind it.]

McDonald's Breaks Agreement in McLibel Suit

by Bruce Tober

Seen as an attempt to overturn recent advances won by the impoverished campaigners

LONDON -- In its latest attempt to win its libel case against a couple of vegetarian activists, McDonald's has ended its agreement to provide essential daily court transcripts to the defendants.

Near the beginning of what is now the longest libel trial in British history, the corporate giant agreed to provide each of the two defendants with a transcript of each day's testimony. It agreed to do so at its own expense for the remainder of the trial.

This breach of agreement is seen as an attempt to overturn recent advances won by the impoverished campaigners, and also to prevent the media from providing accurate coverage of the trial. Excerpts from the transcripts have frequently appeared on the Internet.

Without daily transcripts, the defendants are at a disadvantage in preparing next day cross-examination of witnesses. These transcripts cost over 350 Pounds Sterling per day, or roughly $525.

McDonald's tactic may backfire on the corporation. Trial judge Mr. Justice Bell has now stated that he would also forego his own copy of the daily transcripts, as he would feel "uncomfortable" having any facility which was not available to the Defendants.

McDonald's argumed that the issues of links between diet and ill health would be "too complicated" for a jury

Dave Morris and Helen Steel were a couple of vegetarian nobodies, living on the dole while working in support of green causes. Morris is a 41-year-old single father and Steel is a 29-year-old unemployed gardener.

Then in 1990, McDonald's sued the pair, claiming the six-page leaflets they distributed contained false statements about the company, its products and practices. The pamphlets were published by London Greenpeace.

Morris and Steel -- often referred to as the "McLibel 2" -- argue that the leaflets were "fair comment," protected under British libel laws. According to British law, the accused must prove the validity of the alleged libelous statements, rather than the company proving the falseness of them, as is the case in the United States.

The pair are simultaneously suing McDonald's for libel because of a leaflet the corporation circulated at its British shops, claiming the two were liars due to the claims in their brochure.

In the legal proceedings, Liberty, the British version of the ACLU, took up the defendants cause on a pro bono basis when the pair was denied legal aid (which would have paid their legal costs). During three and a half years of pre-trial legal maneuvering, the defendants were also denied access to key McDonald's documents.

Only about six months before the trial began, they were denied a jury trial. Denial of a jury trial came about on McDonald's argument in court that the issues of links between diet and ill health would be "too complicated" for a jury to decide.

After that hearing, the defendants said, "The Court has ruled that the issues in the case are too complex for a jury to understand. In fact the issues are ones which are frequently in the public eye, and they are quite capable of understanding them.

"McDonald's seems to be scared of the public. We believe that a jury would likely be outraged that this case was ever brought at all. Libel laws are stacked against freedom of speech and against ordinary members of the public -- but we are determined to defend the public's right to criticize multinational [corporations]."

The actual trial, originally expected to last 12 weeks, was a year old in June, and at that point nearly two-thirds of its 180 witnesses had yet to be heard. The suit is believed to cost McDonald's about $9,600 per day.

Sympathy for the defendants has visibly increased worldwide

The trial , which began on June 28, 1994, looks increasingly bad for McDonald's. It is thought that the company doesn't care about winning court costs, let alone damages. Rather, it allegedly is simply looking for a judgement that the claims in the leaflet are untrue.

But in the months since the case came to court, sympathy for the defendants has visibly increased worldwide. Doubts about pursuing the case have riven McDonald's corporate family, leading to speculation the corporate giant may back down and ask for dismissal of the charges fairly soon.

At this year's McDonald's Corporation Shareholders' Meeting in Chicago on May 26, Michael Quinlan, Chair and Chief Executive, was repeatedly queried on whether it was in the company's best interests to continue the suit. Quinlan formally replied on behalf of the Board of Directors that the case is "coming to a wrap soon."

Then a month later, the company's Head of Communications leaked information that the company was in discussions to bring the case to an end.

And this case is not the only unhappy legal situation the burger chain endured in the past year. One of the other headline-making suits was the case of the much-too-hot-coffee in which McDonald's lost a personal injury case to Sheila Liebeck, 80 years old. She was awarded a total of $2.9 million, reduced to $640,000.

On the first anniversary of the trial, the defendants said, "This is already the longest running libel trial in British history and still has six months to run. The reason it is taking so long is because McDonald's is trying to suppress a wide range of common sense views on matters of great public interest, which we naturally have an obligation to defend..."

Responding to the leak about the settlement discussions, the defendants said, "McDonald's at their own initiative have twice called discussions with the defendants in order to pursue ways of ending the case... Our position today is clear.

"Our preconditions for allowing the McDonald's Corporation to withdraw from the case are: We call on McDonald's to give an undertaking not to sue any organizations or individuals for making statements similar to those contained in the London Greenpeace Factsheet. We call on McDonald's to apologize to those people they have sued in the past for such statements. We call on McDonald's to pay a substantial sum to a mutually agreeable third party in lieu of compensation to us."

Albion Monitor September 2, 1995 (

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