Activism  > McLibel Case


The story of two ordinary vegetarians taking on the giant McDonald's in London Court


A small group distributed leaflets in front of a McDonald's restaurant -- The Big McD' decided to teach them a lesson -- A couple accepted the challenge -- Vegetarian organizations from all over the world poured in to support -- The case should have lasted only a few days, but instead went on for months... years... -- Became the longest in British history -- Started in 1994, finished in 1997 -- McD' learned its lesson: "Might is not right!"


The three reports below explain the whole story in a nutshell.

The McLibel Trial - A Mammoth Legal Battle


This was a mammoth legal battle between the $30 billion a year McDonald's Corporation and two London Greenpeace supporters (Helen Steel and Dave Morris). The trial began in June 1994, became the longest civil case in British history in December 1995, and lasted until end of 1996. McDonald's sued Steel & Morris for libel over a 6-sided "Factsheet" produced by London Greenpeace, entitled "What's Wrong With McDonald's? -- Everything they don't want you to know," which they distributed in 1989/90.


Approximately 180 witnesses from the UK and around the world have given evidence on all the issues in the case, namely:


The connection between multinational companies like McDonald's, cash crops, and starvation in the third world.


  • The responsibility of corporations such as McDonald's for damage to the environment, including destruction of rain forests.


  • The wasteful and harmful effects of the mountains of packaging used by McDonald's and other companies.


  • McDonald's promotion and sale of food with a low fiber, high fat, sodium, and sugar content, and the links between this type of diet
          and diseases including heart disease and cancer.


  • McDonald's exploitation of children by its use of advertisements and gimmicks to sell unhealthy products.


  • The barbaric way animals are reared and slaughtered to supply products for McDonald's.


  • The lousy conditions that workers in the food service industry work under, and the low wages paid by McDonald's


  • McDonald's hostility towards trade unions.


  • "The Vegan News" -- Vol. 2, Issue 3

    'McLibel' Trial pits activists against corporate giant

    British pair defend anti-McDonald's leaflet


  • "Vegetarian Voice" -- Vol. 21, No. 3


  • It's "the best free entertainment in London," according to a British newspaper. This battle is contested by two impoverished campaigners. Originally there were five defendants, but three decided to apologize and avoid any costs, because there is no legal aid to fight libel cases. However, Steel and Morris opted to fight the case, determined to counter McDonald's attempts to silence its critics.


  • They did not write the Fact sheet; they only defended the allegations made in it against McDonald's. Steel is a former gardener. Morris is a former postman and a single parent. Their combined annual earnings totaled less than $ 11,000. They are not even a couple; however, they battled together for a cause they believed in.


  • Fast food restaurants have been publicly criticized in many parts of the world for many similar reasons. Some observers have argued that McDonald's brought suit in England because of its relatively more favorable libel laws. The case most likely could never have been filed in the United States, where the First and Fourteenth Amendments provide protection of freedom of speech and a corporation may only maintain an action for libel if it can prove malice on the part of the person alleged to have made the offending comment. Putting the question of malice aside, a person or company bringing a libel suit in the U.S. must also prove that the information published about them:


  • 1) is defamatory (hurts their reputation and/or good name), and

  • 2) is not true.


  • Thus, if this case had been brought in the United States, the burden of proof would have fallen on McDonald's. The corporation would have had to prove that the information was both false and damaging to its reputation.


  • In England, it is the other way around. The defendants in this case had the more difficult burden of proving that the criticisms of McDonald's published in the London Greenpeace leaflet are true.


  • Some 180 witnesses, roughly evenly split for each side, gave evidence in court about the effects of the company's operations on the environment, on millions of farm animals, on human health, on the Third World and on McDonald's own staff.


  • The leaflet is still in circulation, with over 1.5 million copies distributed in the UK alone since the libel writs were issued. The defendants argue that every word in the leaflet is true, and thus cannot be considered libelous.


  • Running concurrently with McDonald's libel suit is a countersuit by Steel and Morris that alleges the fast food corporation libeled them when it distributed a leaflet in Spring 1994 which claimed Steel, Morris and other critics were deliberately circulating lies about McDonald's.


  • The trial reportedly cost McDonald's some $9,600 a day. A lawyer for the restaurant chain originally expected the trial to last three to four weeks. But when it passes its first anniversary (June 28, 1995), it was widely reported that McDonald's had started secret negotiations with Steel and Morris and had twice flown members of its U.S. board of directors to London to meet them.


  • Steel and Morris represented themselves against the burger giant's team of top libel lawyers. They lacked formal legal training but performed the vast majority of legal preparations themselves, as well as presenting the case in court and questioning witnesses. Some sympathetic lawyers occasionally provided legal advice on an informal basis.


  • The case attracted hundreds of articles in the press (including front-page coverage in the Wall Street Journal) plus international TV and radio coverage in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, France, South Africa, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Trinidad, Russia, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Thailand and Israel. (In India, animal rights activists Mrs. Maneka Gandhi spoke about this through various media at her disposal. -- Ed.)


  • The Verdict and Aftermath
    It was an 800-page Judgement, summarized into 45 pages that the Judge read in Court


  • JUNE 19, 1997: Mr. Justice Bell gave his verdict. Even though the company had spent nearly 20 million dollars, it got awarded only $ 94,000 (which is being appealed). The Judge found the criticisms made in the Factsheet to be true, which is not surprising since the evidence was overwhelmingly in the Defendants' favor. After the verdict, at a victory rally, the defendants said, "the company found that all its dirty laundry got aired in public during the trial, exposing the truth behind its glossy image." The company refused to comment.


  • McLIBEL JUDGE CONDEMNS McDONALDS' CORE BUSINESS PRACTICES -- Mr Justice Bell ruled that substantial and significant parts of the London Greenpeace Factsheet criticising the company have been proved to be true by the evidence brought by the McLibel Defendants, Helen Steel & Dave Morris. Of the other parts of the Judgment, McDonald's won on the basis of controversial legal and semantic interpretations of the meaning of the Factsheet, "What's Wrong With McDonald's?" These mainly regarded McDonald's claim that the Factsheet meant that the company itself directly caused rainforest destruction and hunger in the third world (ignoring the Factsheet's criticisms of multinationals and the food industry in general). It also inferred that people have a very real risk of cancer, heart disease and food poisoning from eating the company's food, even though the Factsheet did not say this. The judge astonishingly also ruled that all the comments (bar one phrase) in the Factsheet would be treated as statements of fact which had to be proven by primary sources of evidence.


  • However, the company must be devastated that despite all the disparity and unfairness, the Judge still found it to be factual that McDonald's "exploits children" through their advertising, that they are "culpably responsible" for cruelty to animals, and that the company is anti-Union and pays such low wages that it further depresses the already low wages in the catering industry. The Judge also found that McDonald's food was "high in fat, saturated fat, animal products, and sodium" and that "advertisements, promotions and booklets have pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which McDonald's food ..... did not match" (i.e. that the food is not nutritious and that they are therefore deceiving the public when they promote it as such).


  • OUTRAGE AS MULTINATIONALS LEGALLY PERMITTED TO LIBEL THEIR CRITICS -- Judge finds that McDonald's published unjustified, defamatory statements about the Defendants in an attempt to discredit them, but says this was permissible in law.


  • JUDGE FINDS McDONALD'S ISSUED DEFAMATORY AND 'UNJUSTIFIED' STATEMENTS TO DISCREDIT THE DEFENDANTS -- but rules the company had the right to self-defence! Pre-trial publication by McDonald's of 300,000 leaflets and press releases attacking criticisms of the Corporation as 'lies' had sparked a counterclaim by the Defendants for libel. The company was unable to bring a single piece of evidence to substantiate its defamatory assertions that the Defendants had deliberately circulated false information. In fact, the judge found that McDonald's leaflets were 'defamatory', 'unjustified', contained allegations which McDonald's knew to be untrue and that 'part of the motive....was to discredit the defendants'. But, astonishingly, he ruled that this was legally permissible as McDonald's had a right of self-defence to protect itself since the company was under 'attack' from Helen and Dave!


  • JULY 17th FINAL DEADLINE PASSES -- McDonald's abandons legal efforts Thursday July 17th, the four week deadline set by Mr Justice Bell for any final legal applications by the parties in the action. This was passed without McDonald's making any application for an injunction or costs. The Corporation has thereby conceded a huge victory to the public dissemination of "What's Wrong With McDonald's?" leaflets.


  • CORPORATION CONDEMNED IN PARLIAMENT -- MP's Early Day Motions of July 18th call for sanctions against McDonald's and an end to multinationals' right to sue for libel.


  • CAMPAIGN UNSTOPPABLE -- The Defendants stance in fighting the case has been totally vindicated; evidence in the trial has backed up all the criticisms made of McDonald's over the promotion of unhealthy food, and exploitation of people, animals and the environment. 500,000 leaflets were handed out in the UK and around the world following the verdict. The campaign has become unstoppable.


  • DEFENDANTS PLAN FURTHER LEGAL ACTION -- Plans are now underway to appeal against legal aspects of the verdict and the parts of the judgment which went against the Defendants, to sue McDonald's hired agents for damages, and to take the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights.


  • McDONALD'S SLAMMED IN PARLIAMENT -- Jeremy Corbyn MP has sponsored two Early Day Motions which were put before Parliament on Friday 18th July. They refer to Mr Justice Bell's findings in the McLibel Trial and slam the McDonald's Corporation over its 'deceptive and exploitative business practices', calling for 'effective sanctions' and 'appropriate compensation' to be paid by the company. They further condemn 'unfair and oppressive libel laws' and call for 'urgent reform to safeguard public rights'.


  • SANCTIONS -- The McLibel Support Campaign believes in the public's right of self-defence, and is now calling for sanctions to be implemented against the McDonald's Corporation:


  • (1) The National Food Alliance called, on July 17th, for a ban on food advertising targeting children (NFA -- Jeanette 0171 628 2442).


  • (2) The Farm Animal Welfare Network is demanding immediate legislative action to end the cruel practices identified by the trial judge (FAWN -- Clare 01484 688650).


  • (3) Trade Unions and labour activists are stepping up their recruitment drive in the catering industry and their campaign for a guaranteed minimum wage (TGWU -- Oliver 0181 809 4977).


  • (4) Local residents' associations are broadening their objections to new McDonald's stores to include concerns regarding the targeting of local children and the lowering of local wage levels (e.g. NOMAC, North London -- David 0181 347 9857).


  • McDONALD'S U.S. PRESIDENT REMOVED FROM OFFICE -- Ed Rensi, the Corporation's Chief Executive Officer, was removed from office at the beginning of July along with his management team.


  • For more details on the Judgement, please contact us or visit the home page at address below.


  • A Plea to McDonald's New Management Team


  • Please consider cutting in half the number of meat items on your menu, and diverting your R & D budget towards developing and promoting tasty and healthy recipes that use no animal products.


  • "U.S. McLibel Support Campaign" -- (802) 586-9628
    P.O. Box 62 -- Craftsbury, VT 05826-0062 --