Thefacts In 1986,London Greenpeace, a small London-based environmental group (not part ofGreenpeace International) launched an indictment against the Americanmultinational What’s wrong with McDonald’ s: Everything they don’t want you toknow. Flyers were distributed accusing McDonald’s of poor quality food,exploitation of employees, unhealthy marketing methods directed againstchildren, cruelty to animals, waste and pollution created by the company’sdisposable packaging, with some responsibility for the destruction of SouthAmerican forests. Moreprecisely, the subjects of the pamphlet,which have become the subjects of dispute in the proceedings, are as follows: – The link between multi-national societies such as McDonald’s,cultures of rapport and famine in the Third World.
– The responsibility of companies like McDonald’s for environmentalcauses and the destruction of tropical forests.- waste and harmful effects of the tonnes of packaging used byMcDonald’s and other companies.- The promotion and sale of low-fibre foods that are high in fat,saturated fat, sodium and sugar. The links between such a diet and the majordegenerative diseases of western societies, such as heart disease and cancer.- McDonald’s exploitation of children through advertising and gadgetsto sell food with no nutritional value.- The barbarian faeon whose animals are bred and slaughtered to supplymaterial to McDonald’s.
– The appalling conditions under which workers in the food serviceindustry are forced to work, and McDonald’s low wages.- McDonald’s hostility towards the unions. Thejudicial Process No legalassistance is available for defamation proceedings.
McDonald’s may simplythreaten those who criticize it with a libel suit. The burden of proving lies entirely with the defendant, who mustprovide’ primary evidence’ (i. e. official documents and direct testimony) foreach point. Books, films, press reports, etc. are not admitted as evidence.
In 1990,McDonald’s responded to this campaign by filing a libel suit against fivemembers of the environmental group: Paul Gravett, Andrew Clarke, Jonathan O’Farrell, David Morris and Helen Steel. Althoughthere is no conclusive evidence against the defendants, they face enormousfinancial costs to finance the legal proceedings, unless they recant, apologizefor their actions and stop distributing leaflets on the streets. Three ofthe five accused preferred to apologize but Steel and Morris refused to submitand decided to defend themselves against McDonald’s. Although they were deniedlegal aid by English institutions, a small community was created to supportthem, and some lawyers helped them free of charge in a campaign called the McLibel Support Campaign to set up adefence case.In its libel allegation, Macdonald’s explain that is said in the pamphlet isall false.
First judgement(McLibel 1)In the High Court, the case was tried before a single judge from June 1994 toDecember 1996, making it the longesttrial in English judicial history (The Guardian, 1997). On 19 June1997, Judgments are rendered with the following reasons for decision: it statesthat several points in the pamphlet were abusive and therefore that thedefamation complaint was admissible, but adds that the working conditions inMcDonald’s restaurants could be dangerous to the health of workers, as well assome misleading advertisements could be dangerous to the health of consumers.In addition, marketing methods targeting children are strongly criticized inthe report. Cruelty inflicted on animals is also cited, as well as thecompany’s “antipathy” about union formation in its restaurants andMcDonald’s policy of very low wages. AlthoughSteel and Morris were forced to pay £60,000 in damages to the company, adecision which they immediately appealed, the cost of the proceedings was muchhigher for McDonald’s. The Appealwas made on 12 January 1999 to 26 February of the same year. The Court of Appeal recognized that some of the allegations inLondon Greenpeace’s pamphlet were true, particularly those concerning themistreatment of employees and accusations that McDonald’s food could promotecertain cardiovascular diseases.
The judge’sdecision was subsequently upheld on appeal on the merits. The damages awarded were reduced from £60,000 (GBP) to GBP40,000 by the Court of Appeal, which also closed the door to appeals before theHouse of Lords, and Steel and Morris had been denied legal aid throughout thetrial and appeal proceedings. They had defended themselves with the help of afew volunteer lawyers. They filedan application with the European Court of Human Rights on 20 September 2000,complaining about a procedure made unfair by the fact that they had been deniedlegal aid, even though they were unpaid and dependent on social assistance. Second Judgement (McLibel2)Following thedecision of the English Court of Appeal, Steel and Morris felt that their trialhad not proceeded properly and decided to ultimately appeal to the Law Lordsfor denial of their right to legal aid during the trial. The Law Lords havingrejected this request, the duo put together a file in order to refer the matterto the European Court of Human Rights,basing their legal arguments on one aspect of English law preventing thegranting of legal aid during a civil trial. Thecomplainants also complained about the outcome of the proceedings, which theyconsidered constituted a disproportionate obstacle to the exercise of theirfreedom of expression.
With regard to the first complaint, taken from Article 6 § 1, the Court held that therefusal to grant them jurisdictional assistance had deprived the applicants ofthe opportunity to defend their arguments effectively before the court and hadcontributed to the inequality of arms between the applicants and McDonald’s,which, for this complex procedure of 313 days and generating 40,000 pages ofdocuments, had enlisted the services of lawyers of first and second rank. With regardto the second complaint, on 15 February 2005, the Court finds that article 10 of the Convention had been violated.In her view, while article 10 does not prohibit in principle that, indefamation proceedings, it is incumbent on the defendant to prove thetruthfulness of the disputed statements, it is essential that where a legalremedy is available to a large multinational to defend itself againstdefamatory allegations, the opposite principle of free expression and opendebate is guaranteed by the fairness of the procedure and equality of arms. The Courtalso emphasized the general interest in promoting the free flow of informationand ideas about the activities of powerful business entities and the”chilling effect” of defamation damages in this type of context. Furthermore,the Strasbourg Court held that the damages awarded, GBP 40 000 for damage toMcDonald’s reputation, were disproportionate to the legitimate aim ofprotecting McDonald’s rights and reputation. Because of the lack of fairness inthe proceedings and the disproportionate nature of the damages awarded, theCourt concludes that there was a violation of section 10 in this case, whichthe media had referred to as “McLibel (McDefamation)”. It ordered the United Kingdom to pay EUR 35,000to the applicants as moral damages and EUR 47,311 for costs and expensesrelating to the proceedings in Strasbourg.
Consequencesof this affair for McDonald’s UK The McLibelaffair was a disaster for McDonald’s Company. The cost of the case wasestimated at around £10,000,000 for the multinational in legal costs, and aboveall, its brand image was heavily damaged by the case. The creation of theMcSpotlight website and the media coverage of the trial galvanizedanti-McDonald’s campaigns around the world. As a result of this lawsuit,anti-McDonald’s campaigns have become more effective, and environmentalactivists are joining forces with those fighting for labour rights, thosefighting for public health and those fighting against censorship. According toNaomi Klein, the procedure conducted by Steel and Morris is one of the”first great victories of the alterglobalisation moneys” (Klein, 2000).
The storyof the trial is discussed in his book No Logo. The McLibel is also used by EricSchlosser in his book Fast Food Nation to show that procedures against fastfood can be successful by will.In responseto the report submitted by the European Court of Human Rights, Steel and Morrissaid:”Afterlargely defeating McDonald’s, we have now highlighted the very oppressive lawsin the UK regarding defamation. As a result of the report issued by theEuropean Court of Human Rights, the UK government will be forced to amend oramend some existing laws. We hope this case will encourage the general publicto be more critical of large companies like McDonald’s, which are dangerous topublic health and the environment.
The McLibel campaign has proven that with adetermined organization, it is possible to challenge those who try to silenceus, whether they are multinationals or governments. The growing opposition toMcDonald’s and what it represents is a justification for the efforts of allthose around the world who are trying to expose and denounce the practices ofcertain large corporations.After thisheartbreaking defeat McDonald’s had to react, this is what it does throughadvertising campaign and a brand new one that it but in place under the name of« I’m lovin’ it ».