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.

The plaintiff

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.

Steel and Morris

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.

The Book

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.

The statements in the leaflet were completely defamatory of McDonalds. They said many things. They said that McDonalds:

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:

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.