Activists Found Guilty in "McLibel" Case
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Thu, 19 Jun 97 16:40:19 -0700
Subject: Activists Found Guilty in "McLibel" Case
Forwarded-by: Dan Tenenbaum <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Thursday June 19 10:21 AM EDT
Activists Found Guilty in "McLibel" Case
By Patricia Reaney
LONDON (Reuter) - After the longest trial in English legal history, two
penniless activists were found guilty of libeling hamburger giant McDonald's
and ordered to pay $98,000 in damages Thursday.
The judge found that statements in a six-page pamphlet published by Helen
Steel, 31, and Dave Morris, 43, in 1984 that McDonald's was responsible for
starvation in the Third World, destruction of rainforests and for selling
unhealthy food "injured the plaintiff's reputation."
"The majority of the defamatory statements I found to be untrue. Others
were true," Judge Rodger Bell said in his nearly two-hour summation of a
three-volume verdict on the "McLibel" case that has attracted worldwide
"In my view, the unjustified allegations of blame for starvation in the
Third World and destruction of rainforests, and of knowingly selling food
with a serious risk, of damaging their customers' health, are particularly
damaging," Bell told a packed court room in London's Royal Courts of
"On the other hand, there has been an element of justification in relation
to the plaintiff's advertising, their responsibility for some cruelty toward
some of the animals which are reared and slaughtered for their
products...and low pay," he added.
Because the activists are penniless it will be up to McDonald's to decide
if they will pursue the damages. The burger chain has said it is not looking
to destroy the activists, just to stop them spreading the allegations.
The judge said that although a lot of the statements were found to be
untrue, the pamphlet did expose some unsatisfactory conditions at the
company that were taken into account when assessing damages. Bell said some
of McDonald's publicity material was misleading.
The "David and Goliath" trial of the part-time barmaid and the unemployed
single father accused of libelling the $30 billion a year corporation is
listed in the Guinness Book of Records as England's longest trial. There
has been a longer trial under Scottish law.
The case, which started in 1990, contained 313 days of testimony, eight
weeks of closing speeches and six months of deliberation.
Because the case was so complicated -- dealing with testimony from 180
witnesses on topics ranging from food packaging and manufacturing to labor
practices, the destruction of rain forests and health issues -- Bell deemed
it too complicated for a jury.
While the judge was reading out the summation, he was forced repeatedly to
stop and correct himself, so complex were the issues under review.
The case has also been the subject of a two-part television documentary, a
300-page book and countless newspaper and magazine articles. It has spawned
support groups and its own Internet website which features 19,000 pages of
The case is estimated to have cost 10 million pounds. Steel and Morris
denied that they defamed the world's biggest restaurant chain in a six-page
pamphlet entitled "What's Wrong With McDonalds," and have spent most of the
past three years trying to prove it.
The 1984 pamphlet produced by London Greenpeace, a little known group with
no relation to Greenpeace International, alleged that the burger giant
promoted an unhealthy diet, ruined the environment, was hostile to trade
unions and exploited children and workers.
After receiving libel writs from McDonald's in 1989 three of the five London
Greenpeace leaders apologised, but Steel and Morris were determined to have
their day in court.
Their day turned into years. Court proceedings began in June 1994 after 28
pre-trial hearings and ended late last year.
Denied legal aid and with no training the unlikely duo, who were always
casually dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, conducted their own defense, and
by all accounts, held their own against the impeccably wigged and robed
Richard Rampton, one of England's top libel lawyers.
Writer Auberon Waugh described the proceedings in the sombre courtroom
number 35 of London's Royal Courts of Justice as the "best free
entertainment in town." Leading lawyer Michael Mansfield has called it "the
trial of the century."
© 1997 Peter Langston