With 33 separate verdicts due by June, the result of the mammoth McLibel trial will deliver outright victory to neither side. But whatever happens, the McLibel team, Dave Morris and Helen Steel cannot lose. Nor will they let the matter lie. SQUALL has the update.
Squall 15, Summer 1997, pg. 21.
Following over two years of testimony, submissions to the McLibel trial finally finished on December 13th 1996.
Through an often laborious process of legal disclosure and cross examination co-defendants Helen Steel and Dave Morris have induced the public disclosure of huge quantities of previously hidden corporate information. Their monumental tenacity was employed without legal aid and broke the record for the longest court case in English legal history. Justice Bell’s final verdict is expected in June or soon after.
Because of the multi-faceted nature of the case, the judges decision is likely to entail 33 separate verdicts. Hold tight for the explanation.
McDonald’s sued Morris and Steel over 16 specific criticisms levelled at the Corporation in the six-sided allegedly libellous What’s wrong with McDonald’s factsheet published by London Greenpeace in 1986. Under British libel laws the burden of proof lies with the defendants, who must show using primary evidence that the criticisms in the leaflet are true. A verdict of libellous or not libellous will be given on each of these 16 points.
Helen Steel and Dave Morris have also counter-sued McDonald’s following the publication of a McDonald’s leaflet claiming the ‘factsheet’ to be “lies”. This means that Justice Bell is also likely to pass another set of verdicts on the same 16 points but from a different angle. These verdicts will rule whether McDonald’s have actually proven that each of the 16 specific criticisms are untrue and that Steel and Morris knew them to be untrue.
In addition to these 32 separate libel verdicts, Justice Bell will rule on whether McDonald’s have proven that Morris and Steel were involved in the publication and distribution of the What’s wrong with McDonald’s factsheet in the first place.
Certain aspects of the trial suggest that McDonald’s might come out with a higher percentage of favourable verdicts, although it is thought likely that the 33 verdicts will be a mixture.
With the verdicts decided by a single judge presiding over his first libel case, the balance of decision making is likely to be in accordance with the status quo and based very much on legal technicalities. With the high burden of proof required by British libel law, and with the onus of proof in the main case lying solely with the defendants, the absence of a jury was a serious disadvantage.
Mr Justice Bell has even on occasion sought professional advice on the protocol of libel court cases from McDonald’s highly experienced libel QC, Richard Rampton. Nevertheless, if just one of the verdicts were unfavourable to McDonald’s, it would represent a thorn in the Corporation’s media balloon. The High Court exoneration McDonald’s are undoubtedly looking for will be complicated by a mix of verdicts.
Were a jury to have judged the case, it is likely a higher percentage of verdicts favourable to the defendants might have resulted.
As Dave Morris told SQUALL: “If we lose we will lose solely on the extreme interpretation of the words in the factsheet as presented to the judge by McDonald’s, including the satirical content.”
Steel and Morris intend to sue the undercover spies hired by McDonald’s to infiltrate London Greenpeace.
Steel and Morris’s determined drive to defend the truth is to continue with further court action.
The consequences of the verdicts are three-fold.
Firstly a decision over damages has to be made if any of the verdicts are favourable to McDonald’s. The Corporation have put in for £40,000-£60,000 for each defendant making a potential total of £120,000. If damages are awarded against them, Steel and Morris intend to sue the undercover spies hired by McDonald’s to infiltrate London Greenpeace. (see Squall 14) Evidence came to light in court that these undercover spies had actually been involved in distributing the allegedly libellous ‘factsheet’ themselves. Consequently, Morris and Steel’s intention to sue them if damages are awarded, may lead to the spies having to pay some of the damages. Both Helen Steel (a part-time bartender) and Dave Morris (a single-parent father) survive on subsistence incomes and will simply be declared bankrupt. If McDonald’s lose the counterclaim they may have to pay damages to Steel and Morris.
Secondly, the legal costs of each party will be distributed by the Judge. The defendants legal costs have relied on around £35,000 of publicly donated money, whilst McDonald’s legal costs are estimated to be between £5-10 million.
Thirdly, the judge will then decide on an injunction applied for by McDonald’s concerning the further distribution of critical material. At present McDonald’s want Morris and Steel banned from distributing the original leaflet “or similar criticisms”. Unbelievably, the Corporation also want such a ban to extend to “servants and agents” of Steel and Morris.
The defendants have also announced their intention to appeal against unfavourable verdicts, a course of action which McDonald’s may take also. As is usual for High Court decision making, the judge will be looking to phrase the reasoning behind his verdicts in a way which provides the least opportunity for appeal.
Steel and Morris are also preparing to take the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights to argue that libel laws in the UK side with the most resourced legal department rather than with the truth. In the process they will challenge their denial to a jury trial, their disqualification from legal aid and the exhausting burden of proof even on satire. They will also seek to establish the right for people to criticise multinationals without being sued.
The Saturday after the verdict, a date yet to be announced, has been declared ‘Victory Day’ by the McLibel Support Campaign, with an ‘Adopt a Store’ Scheme being organised nationwide.
Already 400 stores (over half the number in the UK) have been adopted. The campaign is appealing for further volunteers throughout the country, who will be encouraged to hand out copies of a condensed version of the What’s wrong with McDonald’s factsheet leaflet summarising the criticisms levelled at the McDonald’s Corporation. Over two million of these leaflets have been handed out since McDonald’s first issued writs. This leaflet is also available in an annotated version connecting the criticisms with the relevant exposures drawn from the trial transcript itself.
To join the list of volunteers and help target your local McDonald’s burger bar on the day, contact the McLibel Support Campaign on 0171 713 1269.
Meanwhile the entire set of trial transcripts and documents, as well as a multitude of press coverage and much more, is available on the highly impressive McSpotlight Website at http://www.mcspotlight.org
For the full list of Squall articles about the McLibel Trial click here