McDonald’s seems to have made a mistake in suing two unemployed activists, Dave Morris and Helen Steel, who, unlike others McDonald’s have threatened, were willing to fight the case. It seems to be the first time that the McDonald’s actually went to court in the UK after making such threats. McDonald’s had forced apologies from a number of media outlets including Britain’s BBC and major newspapers such as the Guardian, Channel 4 for broadcasting a Germany documentary “Jungleburger’ in 1990 and the Nightline programme in New Zealand. McDonald’s has also sent solicitors letters to the Vegetarian Society of the UK about their publication Greenscene, the publishers of a Polish primary school handbook, to publishers of a UK Home Ecology handbook, all of which linked McDonald’s to rainforest destruction and in other ways criticised McDonald’s. Morris argues that a climate of fear had been created and the word had gone out that if you said anything against McDonald’s you would get a writ.
Morris and Steel were members of London Greenpeace, an anarchist group not affiliated to Greenpeace International, and were distributing pamphlets entitled “What’s Wrong With McDonald’s.” The pamphlets claimed that McDonald’s sold food that was unhealthy, exploited its workers, promoted rainforest distruction through cattle ranching, added to the litter problem and targeted advertisements at children. They were sued for libel (McDonald's Restaurants v Morris & Steel), beginning with a writ in 1990. In Britain legal aid is not available for libel cases so they represented themselves against McDonald’s top lawyers. Even before the case went to trial in 1994, there had been several years of pre-trial hearings. It became the longest trial in UK history.
McDonald’s claimed that it was taking the action to establish the truth. Prior to the case McDonald’s infiltrated the meetings of London Greenpeace to gather evidence against them and the private investigators who did this later gave evidence at the trial. McDonald’s had also been successful in petitioning the judge not to have a jury for this case, arguing that the issues were too complex for a jury to understand.
British libel laws clearly favour those who bring suit. To win the case, under British libel laws, Morris and Steel had to prove that every statement in the pamphlet was true rather than McDonald’s having to prove that it was untrue (as would be the case in the US). Nor does a corporation such as McDonald’s have to prove that its reputation was damaged by the libel or sales were harmed. Keir Starmer, a lawyer who has given free advice to Morris and Steel argued:
The problem with the law as it is now is for libel is that its not a battle for the truth in court, it’s a battle of the purse. If you have the money you can hire a good legal team. If you have no money you can’t hire a legal team and you run huge risks because if you lose you could pay the costs of the person that’s suing you. Now that is a huge incentive by those that can afford to pay lawyers to suppress information and opinions of those they know can’t.
Morris and Steel were supported by an international “McLibel Support Campaign” which raised money to help with costs. They called over 100 witnesses to give evidence against McDonald’s practices and products. They also sued McDonald’s in what is termed a SLAPP-back (also sometimes used by US targets of SLAPP suits), for distributing leaflets calling them liars.
When the trial ended after two and a half years, in February 1997, it had cost about £10 million and generated 40,000 pages of documents and 20,000 pages of transcripts of testimony. Morris and Steel felt they had won, although the court decided they should pay McDonald's £40,000, because McDonald’s practices were put on trial and because they had defeated McDonald’s efforts to silence its critics. The pamphlet had been distributed to an estimated 2 million people since the trial began and an internet site established with much more information about McDonalds and its practices and accessed by people from all over the world.
Subsequently, in 2005 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Steel and Morris's right to a fair hearing because they were not granted legal aid and their right to freedom of expression had been violated by the findings of the court case. The UK government was ordered to pay €20,000 to Steel and €15,000 to Morris for costs and expenses.