1986 was a fun year. Fox Network starts in America. “A.M. Chicago” changes its name to the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and goes national on September 8th. In England, London Greenpeace (Not to be confused with the Greenpeace International), distributed a pamphlet entitled “What’s wrong with McDonald’s: Everything they don’t want you to know“.
The pamphlet was less than complimentary to McDonald’s, stating that as a corporation, the fast food chain was partly responsible for exploiting children, destroying the rain forest and genrally just being greedy bastards.
McDonald’s, not liking the bad press that this pamphlet gave the company, decided to strongarm the folks associated with the pamphlet by serving libel writs on several volunteers in the group. McDonald’s made the folowing threat: retract the allegations made in the pamphlet and apologize, or go to court. Helen Steel and Dave Morris essentially told them “We’ll see you in court”.
The tale of the libel trial is an amazing one, and earned McDonald’s a tremendous black eye. They made the mistake of claiming that all of the allegations made in the pamphlet were false. While some of the allegations were dubious, many, especially those surrounding nutrition, labor practices and child exploitation were not.
The end result? A court victory for McDonalds in June of 1997. But this was due strictly because of the interpretation of U.K. Libel laws, which essentially say that even if one of a dozen allegations made are libelous, then the entire case is deemed libelous. But in the briefing Justice Roger Bell found that the defendants had proven many of the points made in the initial pamphlet. According to Bell, 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 on animals, and that they are “antipathetic” to unionization and pay their workers low wages. The amount McDonald’s won? Â£60,000…Considering they spent Â£10,000,000 in legal fees and research of the case, the victory was a bitter and costly one.
On appeal, it was further noted that McDonald’s mistreated their workers, and that McDonald’s food was a cause of heart disease. The award was reduced to Â£40,000.
Why bring up all this history now? Because yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights (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 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and ordered that the UK government should pay Steel and Morris Â£57,000 in compensation. You see, Steel and Morris were not provided with legal aid to assist them in their defense against the libel charges brought by McDonald’s. They defended themselves with their own money and the money that was raised in their name by people around the world.
In making their decision, the ECHR criticized the way in which UK laws had failed to protect the public’s right to criticize corporations whose business practices affect people’s lives and the environment and criticized 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.
The entire story of the proceedings is almost unbelievable. Corporate spies inflitrated London Greenpeace, following people home, taking letters sent to the group, getting fully involved in the Greenpeace activities – including handing out anti-McDonald’s pamplets. McDonald’s even wanted to settle with Steel and Morris. But because Steel and Morris wanted it stipulated that McDonald’s should not be able to sue anyone for making similar criticisms and for them to apologize to those they’ve sued in the past, the trial plodded along. I urge you to read the most excellent site McSpotlight for the full nefarious story.
Congratulations to both Helen Steel and Dave Morris, who didn’t even write the pamphlet, they merely handed them out.