Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Helen Steel and Dave Morris outside the High Court
Helen Steel and Dave Morris outside the High Court. Photo: Nick Cobbing

SQUALL McLibel Special: McMammon on Trial

The Diary Of A Stance

A timeline of McLibel, stretching back a decade to the origins of the story

Squall 11, Autumn 1995, p.45

1985 »
London Greenpeace, a radical group of civil rights and environmental campaigners independent of Greenpeace International, launch a campaign intended to expose the ‘reality’ behind the advertising mask of the McDonald’s Corporation.

1986 »
London Greenpeace publish a leaflet entitled ‘What’s Wrong with McDonald’s? - Everything they don’t want you to know.’ The leaflet is critical of the Corporation’s treatment of animals, promotion of unhealthy food, effects on the environment and exploitative employment practices. The leaflet contains the phrases McTorture, McCancer, McMurder, McGreedy, McDollars and McProfits.

1987 »
A mobile vegetarian food service called ‘Veggies’ from Nottingham is threatened by McDonald’s with legal reprisals, if they continue to use the words ‘Murder’ and ‘Torture’ to describe the rearing and slaughter of animals for McDonald’s products. Their literature was a copy of the London Greenpeace leaflet.

Veggies change these words to ‘slaughter’ and ‘butchery’ and amend the destruction of rainforest section to refer to the burger industry in general but not specifically McDonald’s. No more is heard from the McDonald’s legal department and Veggies continue to distribute the leaflet.

October 1989 - September 1990 »
McDonald’s send undercover private investigators to infiltrate London Greenpeace. The ‘spies’ take minutes of meetings, answer letters and make friends with members of the group. They also follow people back to their homes to ascertain their addresses and ‘purloin’ the group’s letters. These undercover investigators are later to become court witnesses appearing on behalf of McDonald’s.

September 1990 »
The McDonald’s Corporation issue writs for libel against five members of London Greenpeace considered responsible for distributing the ‘What’s wrong with McDonald’s?’ leaflet. Three of the five people subject to the writs formally apologise after legal advice is given pointing out that legal aid is unobtainable for libel cases and that the case will probably be huge and costly and is unlikely to proceed beyond the pre-trial hearings because of the complex pre-trial legal procedures which have to be followed.

Two of the five, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, refuse to apologise. Libel defences do not qualify for legal aid, so the defendants decide to represent themselves. The three members who formally apologised issue a statement criticising oppressive libel laws and pledging support for Helen Steel and Dave Morris.

September 1990 - June 1994 »
Twenty eight pre-trial hearings are conducted during which McDonald’s put a number of legal obstacles in the way of the defendants. These include persuading the judge to make an order requiring the defendants to produce all the witness statements backing up their defence within three weeks. To the surprise of both McDonald’s and the Judge, the defendants manage to gather over 65 witness statements within the allotted time period. McDonald’s replace its barrister with Richard Rampton QC, one of Britain’s top libel lawyers for a reputed fee of £2000 a day plus a briefing fee.

1990 »
The McLibel Support Campaign is set up to back up the two defendants in their stance.

1991 »
The defendants unsuccessfully take the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights, demanding the right to legal aid or the simplification of libel procedures. Without a full hearing, the court rules that, as the defendants had put up a “tenacious defence”, they could not say they were being denied access to justice!

Late 1993 »
On behalf of McDonald’s, Richard Rampton QC applies to the court for a non-jury trial. McDonald’s submit that the scientific evidence necessary to examine the links between diet and disease are too complicated for a jury to understand. The judge agrees. Dave Morris and Helen Steel apply unsuccessfully to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords to reinstate the trial with a jury. McDonald’s also apply for an order striking out certain parts of the defence on the grounds that the witness statements gathered by the defendants does not sufficiently support those areas of the defence. The judge agrees with McDonald’s. However, in a landmark legal decision, the Court of Appeal restores all parts of the defence on the basis that the defendants are entitled to rely on the witness statements, on future discovery of McDonald’s documents and on what they might reasonably expect to discover under cross-examination.

March 1994 »
McDonald’s publish a leaflet entitled ‘Why McDonald’s is going to court’ and distributes 300,000 of them to customers via its burger outlets. In the leaflet McDonald’s say: “This action is not about freedom of speech; it is about the right to stop people telling lies.” The name given on the leaflet for further information is Mike Love, ex-Conservative Party constituency manager for Margaret Thatcher and now Director of Communications for McDonald’s UK.

April 1994 »
Dave Morris and Helen Steel issue a counter-claim for libel against McDonald’s for the company’s accusation that they are telling lies. With the counter-claim, McDonald’s now have the onus to prove that the statements contained within the London Greenpeace leaflet are “lies” and that the defendants knew them to be so. Under the original libel suit brought by McDonald’s, Morris and Steel have the onus of proving that the statements in the allegedly libellous leaflet are true or fair comment. The defendants are also required under British libel law to provide ‘primary sources’ of evidence to substantiate their case. This means witness statements and documentary proof but not press cuttings or common conceptions.

June 28th 1994 »
The full libel trial, presided over by Mr Justice Bell, commences in court 35, High Court, The Strand.

July 1,4 and 5th 1994 »
Paul Preston, McDonald’s UK President, appears in the witness stand. Born in Ohio, Preston joined McDonald’s at age 16. In 1974 he came to Britain to manage the first UK McDonald’s Burger Bar in Woolwich, south London. He was recently quoted as saying: “McDonald’s isn’t a job, it’s a life.” He also said: “McDonald’s employees have ketchup in their veins.”

July 6th 1994 »
Evidence commences on environmental effects of McDonald’s packaging. The court hears how a recycling scheme advertised in the Nottingham branches of McDonald’s was billed as “recycling into such things as plant pots and coat hangers”. Edward Oakley, Chief Purchasing Officer for McDonald’s UK, admits that the polystyrene packaging collected over the several years that they advertised the scheme was simply “dumped”. He also says in court: “I can see [the dumping of waste] to be a benefit, otherwise you will end up with lots of vast, empty gravel pits all over the country."

July 18th 1994 »
Evidence commences on the McDonald’s nutritional record.

An internal company memo disclosed during the trial says: “McDonald’s should not attempt to deflect the basic negative thrust of our critics.... How do we do this? By talking ‘moderation and balance’. We can’t really address or defend nutrition. We don’t sell nutrition and people don’t come to McDonald’s for nutrition.”

In contrast, the court was reminded of the contents of the McDonald’s ‘nutrition’ guide given out to the public via its burger outlet. The ‘nutrition’ guide says: “Every time you eat McDonald’s, you’ll eat good, nutritious food.... McDonald’s meal combinations can form part of your balanced diet.” Tim Lobstein, co-director of the Food Commission tells the court that McDonald’s concept of balanced diet is “meaningless”. “You could eat a roll of sellotape as part of a balanced diet” he says.

July 26th 1994 »
Evidence commences on McDonald’s animal welfare and food poisoning record. Dr Neville Gregory, an expert witness appearing on behalf of McDonald’s tells the court that McDonald’s egg suppliers keep chickens in battery cages, five chickens to a cage with each bird having less than the size of an A4 sheet of paper of space to live in. Edward Oakley, Senior Vice President of McDonald’s UK, describes these conditions as “pretty comfortable”. He also goes on to say: “Hens kept in batteries are better cared for.”

September 12th 1994 »
Dr Sydney Arnott, McDonald’s expert witness on cancer, inadvertently admits that a statement made in the allegedly libellous leaflet connecting diet with disease is a “very reasonable” assessment.

October 28th 1994 »
Evidence commences on McDonald’s use of advertising techniques. The official and confidential McDonald’s Operation Manual is read out in court. It reads: “Ronald loves McDonald’s and McDonald’s food. And so do children, because they love Ronald. Remember children exert a phenomenal influence when it come to restaurant selection. This means you should do everything you can to appeal to children’s love for Ronald and McDonald’s.” Paul Preston, McDonald’s UK President, tells the court that Ronald McDonald is not intended to “sell food” to children but to promote the “McDonald’s experience”. David Green, McDonald’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, tells the court that “[children are] virgin ground as far as marketing is concerned”.

January 1995 »
David Walker (Chairman of McKey Foods, the sole supplier of McDonald’s UK hamburgers) admits that he personally organised the direct import of the consignments of Brazilian beef for use in UK stores in 1983/4. The court is told of a letter sent by a member of the general public concerned about rainforest destruction in Brazil. In a letter read out in court, the McDonald’s Corporation replied: “We can assure you that the only Brazilian beef used by McDonald’s is that purchased by the six stores located in Brazil itself.”

A statement made by Ray Cesca (Director of McDonald’s Global Purchasing) is also read in court. In the statement is an admission that McDonald’s used beef reared on recently de-forested rainforest when they first opened their stores in Costa Rica in 1970.

March 13th 1995 »
The 102nd day in court breaks the previous record for the length of a British libel trial (beating the 101 day record set by Daily Mail V The Moonies [1982])

April 1995 »
Evidence commences on McDonald’s employment record. Sid Nicholson, McDonald’s UK Vice President, claims in court that McDonald’s are not anti-union and that all staff had the right to join one. He then says that workers “would not be allowed to collect subscriptions.... put up notices.... pass out any leaflets.... organise a meeting for staff to discuss conditions at the store on the premises.... or to inform the union about conditions inside the stores.” (‘Gross Misconduct’ and a ‘Summary sackable offence’). He also admits to the court that for crew aged 21 or over, the company “couldn’t actually pay any lower wages without falling foul of the law”.

April 15th 1995 »
The 40th anniversary of the McDonald’s Corporation. The defendants are invited to the United States to attend an anti-birthday celebration outside the first McDonald’s burger bar (now a McDonald’s museum) in Des Plaines, Illinois. McDonald’s abandon plans to hold a birthday celebration in the museum on that day. Numerous anti- McDonald’s demonstrations are held in over 20 countries around the world.

May 28th 1995 »
The Australian Television programme ‘60 Minutes’ runs a feature on the McLibel case which includes the exposure of a McDonald’s media strategy document.

The document marked ‘highly confidential’ is entitled ‘60 Minutes Strategy - McDonald’s Australia’.

The document says: “We know that 60 minutes has been in Chicago filming in various locations with the two defendants and a group of supporters. They are scheduled to be in the UK where we can only assume they will be doing more of the same.” In a section on how McDonald’s might explain a refusal to be interviewed, it suggests claiming no knowledge of the programme: “We don’t know what 60 minutes are doing - only what we’ve seen on the promo [run a week before the programme is shown].”

They go on: “We could worsen the controversy by adding our opinion/perspective (this could add another dimension)... We should play down any importance or significance of the 60 minutes programme.”

Under the heading “Who should we talk to?” are a list of three named journalists. The document says they should “all be handled by Peter Ritchie [Head of Public Relations McDonald’s Australia] because of his relationship with the presenters”.

Under the heading “Who should we not talk to?” the document says “Any ABC radio or TV station Australia wide because they have given significant coverage to the case in a positive perspective”.

The 60 Minutes programme is shown in Australia with a full exposure of the strategy document and an accusation that McDonald’s are actively manipulating the media. The programme is syndicated to up to 60 other countries.

May 26th 1995 »
At the McDonald’s Corporation Annual General Meeting in Chicago, Michael Quinlan - Chair and Chief Executive - attempts to placate a concerned shareholder by stating that the libel case would be “coming to a wrap soon”.

June 6th 1995 »
McDonald’s hire Ruskin Park in south London for three days in order to shoot a television advertisement. The project is abandoned at a cost of £100,000 after demonstrators keep popping up in front of camera with ‘McGreedy’ banners.

June 28th 1995 »
First anniversary of the trial. National media report that settlement negotiations between McDonald’s and the defendants are under way. The defendants read a statement outside the High Court to clarify their part in the story. In the statement it says that McDonald’s initiated settlement discussions and on two separate occasions flew over members of the US Board of Directors to meet the McLibel defendants. An article in The Economist (1/7/95) reveals that McDonald’s had offered money to be given to a third party, if the defendants undertake a legally binding agreement not to criticise the Corporation again. The defendants refuse the offer, stating that their preconditions for the termination of the trial are as follows:

1. That McDonald’s give an undertaking not to sue any organisation or individual for making statements similar to those contained in the London Greenpeace fact sheet.

2. That McDonald’s apologise to those people they have sued in the past for such statements.

3. That McDonald’s pay a substantial sum to a mutually agreed third party in lieu of compensation to the defendants of the present libel trial.

July 3rd 1995 »
McDonald’s decide to end an agreement by which a copy of the official court transcripts that they pay for, is passed to the defendants. The reason given is the amount of court evidence finding its way into the national and international media.

July 18th 1995 »
A full front page feature article appears in the Wall Street Journal (18/7/95) headlined ‘Activists put McDonald’s on Grill’. The article is part of a spate of media coverage that swept across America following the first anniversary of the trial which included 4 minutes on prime time CBS National News.

July 26th 1995 »
Summer recess begins.

September 25th 1995 »
Summer recess ends and the trial recommences.

December 1995 »
The trial will become the longest civil case of any kind in British legal history.

Projected timetable:

Still to be heard in the trial:

• Some further McDonald’s witnesses on their employment record followed by 30 ex-employees and trade union officials called by the defence.

• The evidence on McDonald’s connections with rainforest destruction through cattle ranching (estimated to last two months)

• There is also further evidence on nutrition, pesticides, packaging, food poisoning, marketing and on the publication of the leaflet itself - McDonald’s must prove that Helen Steel and Dave Morris were responsible for the distribution of the leaflet. Witnesses include the undercover spies employed by McDonald’s to infiltrate London Greenpeace meetings (estimated to last four weeks).

• Closing speeches (estimated to last six weeks).

• Judgement estimated to come between April and June 1996.

Related Articles
McMAMMON SPECIAL - series of six articles exploring the McLibel trial and the mighty stance taken by two activists who refused to back down - Squall 11 - Autumn 1995
STILL GETTING GRILLED - anti-McDonald's campaigns across the world are attracting more popular support than ever - Nov-1999
CORPORATE COPS - Investigation into relationship between McDonalds and the British Police - 2000
A PROPER GRILLING - The McLibel trial and the legal aftermath reaches its climax at the end of 2004 - 12-Dec-2004