Outcome of "McLibel" Trial

Ben Drasin

As reported in the Summer 1996 issue of the TVS Grapevine (v.10#2 - bright yellow), McDonald's Corporation sued two unemployed British activists (Helen Steel and Dave Morris) in 1990 concerning a leaflet entitled "What's wrong with McDonald's?" This leaflet accuses McDonald's of serving unhealthy food, promoting unsound environmental policies, and of exploiting animals and people in the blind pursuit of profit. The resulting "McLibel" trial lasted 335 days, making it the longest legal action of any kind in British history. Britain's libel laws place a great burden of proof on libel defendants, requiring those who cannot afford a lawyer to conduct their own defense.

The trial reached a conclusion on June 20, 1997, with Judge Roger Bell (a member of the Thames Hare and Hounds club) handing down a verdict which upheld most of McDonald's claims of libel, although he also criticized many aspects of the company's business practices. Though Bell concluded that McDonald's exploits children in its advertising, is "culpably responsible" for cruelty to animals, and makes false claims about the nutritional value of its food, he found that on other issues the defendants had not met their burden of proof. The trial itself is covered in exhaustive detail on the Internet at www.McSpotlight.org, and is an invaluable resource. (There is also a mailing list on internet that sends out messages on this and related topics; send email to majordomo@world.std.com with message subscribe mclibel.)

Much of the McSpotlight web site deals with the perceived unfairness of the British legal system in general, of British libel laws in particular, and of the trial judge's handling of the case. To me, though, the actual legal issues of the trial are almost entirely beside the point. In most instances McDonald's did not even try to refute the substance of the charges leveled against them. For example, their lawers defined "nutritious" as "containing nutrients". Thus, they found libelous Dave and Helen's claim that McDonald's food is not nutritious. My own favorite moment from the trial transcripts was from Helen's cross-examination of Professor Wheelock, McDonald's nutrition consultant. When she asked him to define "junk food", he said it was "whatever a person doesn't like". With disbelief mounting in the courtroom, a McDonald's lawyer intervened to say that McDonald's was not objecting to the description of their food as "junk food".

Editor's note: There is a brand new video called McLibel: Two Worlds Collide that I had the privilege of seeing in its first formal North American showing in Washington, D.C. in mid-October. I have arranged to borrow this exciting and informative video, and will be showing it on Nov. 15 and at a post-Thanksgiving reception; see Calendar for details.