McDonalds Corporation v Steel & Morris: Defamation trial upsized
Helen Steele and Dave Morris joined London Greenpeace in 1980. “London Greenpeace”, sounds like an arm of the multinational protest merchants, but was not actually linked with Greenpeace International at all. The Londoners considered Greenpeace “too centralised and mainstream for their tastes”. These Londoners were the true believers. They made Che Guevara look like a Tory back-bencher from Kensington.
In 1986, five of the London Greenpeacers were presumably having just another ordinary day. They stood outside McDonalds. They handed out leaflets stating how multinational corporations were causing the downfall of the fabric of society. They drank free trade coffee. They tried to smash the State.
Little did they know that on this day, they would actually get close.
Before that day, Helen Steele was a part-time bartender and Dave Morris an unemployed postal worker. Not exactly the well-heeled supervillains that are usually the ones bringing down society from their secret lairs. These were ordinary people taking ordinary actions. So bring on the revolution. London Greenpeace campaigned for social change on a whole range of issues and in 1986 distributed the pamphlet “What’s wrong with McDonalds?: Everything they don’t want you to know”. Steele and Morris were two of those outside a McDonalds restaurant that day, and they were not there for the fries. They handed out the pamphlet, smiled earnestly and probably then went home for vegan dinners.
Previously, McDonalds had a successful strategy to deal with those who criticised them. It sued people. Lots of people. High, wide and all sorts. “Would you like a writ with that?” their process server would probably ask.
McDonalds had sued around 50 other defendants, including Channel 4. They got apologies from all of them and presumably, never heard another word. This strategy of suing to shut people up became known as the “gagging writ” strategy. With London Greenpeace, McDonalds went even further. They hired private detectives to infiltrate them. And those investigators did a great job: they had affairs with other members of the group, they attended meetings (some meetings had more of these spies at them than genuine members), they broke into offices, stole documents and possibly even ate gluten-free for a few months.
After all of this work, once McDonalds identified the people who handed the pamphlets out, it sued them. Five penniless London Greenpeacers were now defendants. Three out of five of those apologised in 1990 and promised to stop distributing the pamphlets, but two refused: Steele and Morris.
So McDonalds continued with the case, hoping Steele and Morris would give up. They did not give up. They kept going. By the time they had finished with this, they would have made Roald Amundsen look like a lazy couch potato. They just kept going.
Ultimately, what had started as a small leaflet campaign by a tiny pocket of broke political radicals became, as a result of McDonalds’ decision to sue, a snowballing monster of publicly broadcast allegations, assertions and admissions, all of which basically said this: McDonalds was evil and anyone who said otherwise was lying through their stained rotting McTeeth.
There was no way that the London Greenpeace outfit could ever have dreamt of the publicity campaign that McDonalds caused to be put in place for them. The case spawned a website, a movie, millions of new readers, millions of new listeners and for Steele and Morris, Fast Food Martyrdom.
For McDonalds, the decision to sue was a public relations sewer. And the basic reasons were this: Morris and Steele refused to settle, they did not have enough money to pay for legal representation, they defended themselves in court, and the trial ran forever.
- was destroying rain forests;
- was causing starvation in the third world;
- was buying from greedy rulers and elites;
- was practising economic imperialism;
- was responsible for the torture and murder of animals;
- was producing litter in cities;
- was causing heart disease;
- was causing cancer and food poisoning;
- was subjecting its employees to bad working conditions;
- was exploiting women and minority workers; and
- was covering up the low quality of their food with advertising gimmicks aimed at children.
Steele and Morris asserted the defences of truth and fair comment. Thus, McDonalds’ entire business practices came under scrutiny. And while McDonalds armed themselves with many expensive lawyers in many expensive clothes, Steele and Morris caught the Underground to get themselves to court and they read about the law of evidence each night while running the longest trial in English history.
Ultimately, what actually happened was this:
- There were 28 pre-trial hearing applications. Among those, Steele and Morris requested that it be a trial by jury and they were denied. They were also denied Legal Aid;
- Just before the trial in March 1994, McDonalds produced 300,000 copies of a different leaflet to distribute to their customers in their burger outlets. It stated “this action is not about freedom of speech; it is about the right to stop people telling lies”. Steele and Morris then issued a counterclaim, alleging that this leaflet called them liars.
- The trial came before Justice Rodger Bell. A lawyer who had never heard a defamation case, nor acted in a defamation case while he was a barrister;
- The trial lasted more than two and a half years, beginning in June 1994;
- Steele and Morris called 180 witnesses;
- In June 1995, McDonalds offered to settle, offering to pay a large sum to a charity chosen by Steele and Morris, if they agreed to stop publicly criticising McDonalds. No deal;
- Judgment in June 1997 that ran for more than 1,000 pages;
- Justice Bell found that McDonalds had been defamed and gave them damages of £60,000;
- But the judgment also said some bad stuff about McDonalds, namely that it:
- had contributed to cruelty to animals;
- used advertising material to manipulate children;
- paid employees so little as to depress wages in the catering industry in England;
McDonalds’ fees for their barristers and solicitors were £6,500 per day and so it had spent millions in legal costs, Meanwhile, a website was constructed, a documentary movie made and the pamphlet was published millions of times more.
After judgment was delivered, Steele and Morris went outside and started handing out the pamphlet again. They told McDonalds they had no money, so good luck enforcing the judgment. And they followed it up by appealing to the Court of Appeal, where the damages were reduced to £40,000.
They also brought a case in the European Court of Human Rights, asserting that their human rights had been breached in that they had not received a fair trial. In that case, the European Court of Human Rights found in their favour and ordered the UK Government pay to them £57,000.
Their dream of smashing the State was taking shape, one appeal at a time.