by Laura Dilley
It's a modern-day struggle of David and Goliath. Two unemployed activists are defending themselves against libel charges waged by the world’s largest hamburger chain. And what McDonald’s estimated would be a quick trial has turned into the longest running libel trial in United Kingdom history. The two unemployed activists, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, didn't have much to lose in taking on the corporation, which approached them with a libel suit for passing out the flier "What’s Wrong With McDonald’s." The flier alleged that McDonald’s food is unhealthy, that the company employs practices which are harmful to the environment, that it exploits its workers, and that it is responsible for the murder of millions of animals. But it is McDonald's that seems to be on the grill at the moment. Much testimony damaging to the Golden Arches has been exposed during the course of the trial, and McDonald’s appears to be feeling the heat. And seemingly in the spirit of rooting for the underdog, various "McLibel" support campaigns have sprung up around the world. Alongside these are protests against McDonald’s, including an interrupted taping of a McDonald’s commercial in a London park where protestors shouted down Ronald as he read his lines, and the ransacking of a Copenhagen store by 400 youths in March, where furniture was set afire. Indeed, it does appear that the McDonald's reputation is being singed by the turns the trial has taken. Dave Steel, an unemployed postal worker, said he believes McDonald’s chose to pursue the case in the U.K., though activists in other countries had published similar things, because of the U.K. libel laws. In the U.K. the burden of proof rests with the defendants in a libel suit. In contrast, U.S. libel laws require that the party that brings about the libel charges prove them to be untrue. Additionally, McDonald’s top-notch libel lawyers managed to convince the court that the trial should run without a jury, since the case would supposedly involve points too scientific for the average person to grasp. The penniless, lawyer-less pair were left to defend themselves. In light of McDonald's initial advantage, some more recent tactics by the now reeling McDonald’s have seemed like downright dirty pool. For instance, McDonald’s made arrangements mid-trial to have a $1000/day firm make transcripts of the courtroom proceedings, but refused to supply the transcripts to the defendants unless they paid. This put a huge financial strain on the defendants and their supporters. Interestingly, support has come in part through the Internet. There is an electronic mailing list for those who wish to follow the trial, and a World Wide Web page which can be accessed at 'http://www.interlog.com/eye/Misc/McLibel.' The stream of well-known experts on nutrition, public health, and the environment which the defendants and their supporters have brought in is testimony to their efforts. Potentially damaging testimony to McDonald's has come forth in the trial. Nutrition and Health The leaflet which Steel and Morris circulated alleges that McDonald's food is unhealthy. On the stand, David Green, senior vice-president of marketing for McDonald’s in the U.S., stated to the contrary that McDonald’s food is both "nutritious" and “healthy.” According to Green, the company’s definition of “nutritious” is “provides nutrients and can be a part of a healthy balanced diet.” Green admitted that, under this definition, Coca-Cola qualifies as nutritious. "[Coca-Cola is] providing water, and I think that is part of a balanced diet," Green said. At another point in the trial, McDonald's expert on cancer, Dr. Sydney Arnott, was asked by the defendants his opinion of the following statement: "A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products, and salt and low in fiber, vitamins and minerals is linked with cancer of the breast and bowel and heart disease." "If it is being directed to the public," Arnott said, “then I would say it is a very reasonable thing to say.” The statement read by the defendants was an excerpt from the London Greenpeace fact sheet, which had been characterized by McDonald's lawyers in pre-trial hearings as the central and most defamatory allegation in the suit. Other evidence has come forth that McDonald's is involved in a "strategy of subversion" by trying to alter the dietary preferences of entire nations, often for the worse. The evidence comes from a 1987 book authorized by McDonald’s called Behind the Arches. The book mentions at one point the “fundamental challenge of establishing beef as a common food” in Japan. President of McDonald’s Japan, Den Fujita said, “The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for 2,000 years...If we eat McDonald’s hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years we will become taller, our skin become white and our hair blond.” Effects of Packaging on the Environment It has come out in the trial that McDonald's distributed for several years what they termed "McFact" cards detailing a recycling program that would supposedly use waste from Nottingham, England stores to make such items as plant pots and coat hangers. Instead, according to Ed Oakley, chief purchasing officer for McDonald’s U.K., none of the waste was recycled-it all went into landfills. Several other witnesses have testified that, since the opening of local McDonald's stores, neighborhood litter problems have greatly increased. Destruction of Rainforests Another of McDonald's contentions over the leaflet hasn’t seemed to curry much favor. McDonald’s claimed that they do not use beef from cattle reared on recently deforested land. However, Director of Global Purchasing for the McDonald’s Corporation, Ray Cesca, stated that when it opened Costa Rican stores in 1970, beef from cattle raised on ex-rainforest land was used. Grazing cattle on deforested land prevents the regeneration of forests. In yet another twist of events that has worked to the advantage of the defendants, internal McDonald's documents were mistakenly released to the court. It was revealed that the chairman of the sole company that supplies U.K. hamburgers, David Walker, admitted to the direct import of consignments of Brazilian beef. This beef is known to be raised on land cleared of Amazon rainforests for the express purpose of raising cattle. Employees and Trade Unions McDonald's disputes the allegations that employees are low-paid. However, Sid Nicholson, McDonald’s U.K. vice president, admitted that employees are paid consistently either exactly the same as the minimum rates of pay set by the Wages Council or just a few pence over them. Also, crew aged 21 and over can not legally be paid any less under the current law. McDonald’s also admits that employees are never paid overtime rates. But Nicholson held firm. "I do not accept that McDonald's crew are low paid," he said. Nicholson also claimed that the company was not at all anti-union, but under questioning he admitted that any McDonald's workers interested in union membership "would not be allowed to collect subscriptions...put up notices...pass out any leaflets...to organize a meeting for staff to discuss conditions at the store on the premises...or to inform the union about conditions inside the stores." Also introduced as evidence was an internal report on store safety, circulated after the death of McDonald's worker Mark Hopkins by electrocution in 1992. Hopkins had touched a faulty "fat filtering unit" in the wash-up area of one store. The report concluded that “safety is not seen as being important at the store level.” The Future The trial is expected to continue through at least December, 1995. And so the world watches and waits to see if Helen Steel and Dave Morris - or the "McLibel Two", as they're now known in the U.K.-will end up slaying the mighty McDonald’s with their leaflets as ammo. Good guys do win, sometimes.