On 19th June 1997, Mr. Justice Bell gave his personal verdict in the UK's longest ever libel trial, brought by McDonald's against two supporters of London Greenpeace, Helen Steel and Dave Morris over a factsheet entitled 'What's Wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know'. Publicity surrounding the award of £60,000 damages to McDonald's conveyed to some that McDonald's had won the case, all bar a few minor points. In fact, most of the judge's findings of fact back up the criticisms made in the factsheet, which is not surprising since the evidence was overwhelmingly in the defendants' favour.
The day after the McLibel verdict, the Jonathan Aitken libel case fell apart after the former Government Minister was exposed as a bare faced liar. Commentators asked how he expected to get away with lying in court, and answered by saying that when it came down to the word of a former Tory Minister against that of a journalist, he could safely assume, having successfully applied for trial by judge alone, that the courts would believe his word, particularly since as a Plaintiff legally he didn't have to prove anything under UK libel laws.
The situation in McLibel is much the same. Having been denied a jury, who might not be so ready to accept the word of Corporate Executives as true, the Judge has in the main chosen to prefer the evidence of those representing the establishment status quo. However, the Defendants thought this was likely to happen, and so from the start adopted a strategy of gaining admissions from McDonald's witnesses, so that, as the Defendants said, 'it wouldn't come down to "their word against ours" but "their word against their own'. Helen and Dave succeeded on this in almost every area of the case, which is why the majority of findings of fact were in the Defendants' favour.
One of the things to be decided in a libel case is the meaning which a 'notional ordinary, reasonable reader' would take from reading the leaflet. The areas in which the Defendants lost the verdict were largely because the Judge accepted McDonald's ludicrous and extreme meanings on most of the issues, which the Defendants had argued the factsheet just didn't say. For example, the factsheet repeatedly criticised the business practices of the food industry and multinationals in general (i.e. about people's diets, cash crops and hunger, damage to the environment etc.) but the Judge insisted that the Defendants would have to prove that McDonald's itself was responsible.
This demonstrates just one of the disadvantages the Defendants faced, having been denied a jury. A jury would be very unlikely to adopt the extreme meanings put forward by the Plaintiffs, and in fact would more than likely have thrown the whole case out early on, viewing it as oppressive and contrary to the public interest.
The Judge also bizarrely and unfairly refused the Defendants' right to rely on any of the statements in the factsheet (bar one) as 'comment' or 'opinion', ruling instead that every statement was a 'fact' that would have to be proven from primary sources of evidence by the defence. This made the task ten times as hard at one stroke.
Although the Judge decided that McDonald's had been libelled by some of the statements in the factsheet, he also ruled that several of the most biting allegations had been proved to be true. These are particularly significant since the burden of proof was on the Defendants to legally justify the allegations by bringing extensive first-hand evidence to show that they were true. McDonald's didn't have to prove that they were false, so where the Judge ruled in McDonald's favour, it doesn't necessarily mean that he thought the allegations were untrue, rather that the pair, with their limited resources, and up against a wall of propaganda from McDonald's well briefed representatives in the witness box, had been unable to prove them to the satisfaction of the law.
Here are some major pieces of evidence of McDonald's business practices in the US and UK, in the main from their witnesses' own mouths and from their own documents, and the judge's FINDINGS OF FACT, which clearly back up all the statements in the London Greenpeace leaflet.
DIET AND ILL-HEALTH. McDonald's expert witness on cancer had been asked for his view of the statement 'A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals is linked with cancer of the breast, bowel and heart disease'. He replied, 'If it is being directed to the public then I would say it is a very reasonable thing to say'. McDonald's expert witness, Professor Verner Wheelock admitted that a typical McDonald's meal was high in fat, saturated fat and sodium content. McDonald's UK President admitted that McDonald's products were low in fibre. McDonald's then changed their claim against the defendants and argued they had to prove a more severe meaning than the original claim. This enabled the judge to find in McDonald's favour by interpreting the meaning of the leaflet in an extreme way, despite the fact that during the closing speeches, the judge had agreed that the text of the leaflet in relation to nutrition was OK. Nonetheless, his verdict included the following findings of fact which confirm all the criticisms made: 'At the material time of publication of the leaflet, McDonald's food was high in fat (including saturated fat) and salt (sodium) and animal products and it has continued to be so. It was low in fibre at the time.' (NB. It is still low in fibre). 'I ... find that various advertisements, promotions and booklets have pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which McDonald's food, high in fat and animal products and sodium, and at one time in fibre, did not match'.
The Judge concluded that people 'who eat McDonald's food several times a week will take the very real risk of heart disease if they continue to do so throughout their lives, encouraged by the Plaintiff's advertising' He also ruled, 'it is possible it would increase the risk to some extent' of breast cancer and 'strongly possible that it increases the risk to some extent' of bowel cancer. (NB. McDonald's witness said about 75% of US visits were from 'heavy users' who ate there on average 3 times a week and were also likely to eat similar fast food during the rest of the week.
UNETHICAL ADVERTISING. The Defendants won this section of the case outright. The Judge ruled as fact that McDonald's exploit children by using them as more susceptible subjects of advertising to pressurise their parents into going to McDonald's. He also ruled 'In my judgment their advertising and marketing makes considerable use of susceptible young children to bring in custom, both their own and that of their parents who must accompany them, by pestering their parents.'
FOOD SAFETY. The Defendants would have won this section of the case if it wasn't for the judge's extreme and controversial interpretation of the words complained of in the Factsheet, based on the supposed 'context'. He ruled that this 'context' meant that the paragraph about general safety concerns associated with modern factory farming methods and mass meat production put the burden on the defendants to prove that McDonald's sell products which 'expose their customers...to a serious risk of food poisoning and poisoning by the residues of antibiotic drugs, promoting hormone drugs and pesticides', something that the factsheet had not said. In fact the judge agreed that the text of this section of the factsheet, taken literally, could be viewed as 'inoffensive'. The judgment noted evidence that McDonald's own witnesses had said that 'antibiotic compounds which acted as growth promoters' were fed to chickens 'from their arrival at Sun Valley until 5 days before slaughter'. That hormonal growth promoters such as clenbuterol 'were used in the pig industry as fairly standard practice'. The judgment notes that 'the principal food poisoning organism carried by chickens are salmonella and camphylobacter'. A representative of McDonald's chicken meat supplier accepted during his evidence that camphylobacter was found on 70% of raw poultry and that salmonella was found on 25% of deboned chicken meat for McNuggets. The defence against the presence of food poisoning organisms on meat is dependent on adequate cooking to kill the organisms. According to the judge, 'the risk of undercooking is endemic in the fast food system whatever protective measures the Plaintiff's put in place'. McDonald's admitted that in 1994 they were convicted for serving undercooked chicken and they were responsible for two serious outbreaks of E.Coli 0157 food poisoning in the USA affecting 47 people in 1982 and in Preston, UK in 1991. Evidence from their own witnesses revealed that the company still only instructs UK stores to cook standard beef patties for 40-44 seconds to reach an internal temperature of 70°C. In deciding that the defendants had not proved there was a serious risk of food poisoning, the Judge ignored UK Government advice contained in the Food Safety Committee Report on E.Coli, 1995 : 'Regardless of the technique used, it is critical that the operation can consistently achieve 70°C, for 2 minutes or equivalent in all parts of every burger', in order to ensure that pathogenic bacteria are killed.
LOW PAY AND HOSTILITY TO TRADE UNIONS. Most of the findings of fact on the employment issue were in the Defendants' favour, but the judge then decided that he found certain forms of exploitation acceptable and therefore in his view the company had been libelled. On pay, the Judge clearly found for the Defendants, ruling that McDonald's UK does pay its workers low wages, thereby helping to depress wages for workers in the catering trade in Britain.
Moving on to Unions, the Judge found as a fact that McDonald's 'are strongly antipathetic to any idea of unionisation of crew in their restaurants'. However, he bizarrely ruled that the Defendants had libelled McDonald's because they had failed to prove that McDonald's have a policy of preventing unionisation by getting rid of pro-Union workers.
RAINFORESTS AND THIRD WORLD STARVATION. The factsheet had identified McDonald's as just 'one of many US Corporations' involved in and responsible for this process. But the judge ruled that the Defendants had to prove that McDonald's itself had bought vast tracts of land for cattle ranching and itself used lethal poisons to destroy vast areas of rainforest and that any evidence less than this was irrelevant. He therefore disregarded irrelevant to his judgment all the evidence of McDonald's responsibility for damage to tropical forests, which included admissions by McDonald's that they had imported Brazilian beef into the UK in the 1980s. The factsheet talked of the role of multinationals in general in the cash crop economy which forces people off their land, or forces them to grow cash crops instead of staple foods. Again the judge ruled that the defendants must show that McDonald's itself had carried out the acts.
PACKAGING, RECYCLING AND LITTER. Much evidence was heard about both the production and disposal of packaging inevitably causing damage to the environment. In the UK all McDonald's packaging ends up as litter or in landfill sites, but the judge ruled that the evidence relating to packaging was mostly irrelevant.
ANIMAL SUFFERING. The defendants won this section of the case outright, with the judge ruling it was a fact that McDonald's are culpably responsible for cruel practices in the rearing and slaughter of some of the animals which are used to produce their food. McKey Foods (sole hamburger supplier to McDonald's UK) admitted that 'as a result of the meat industry, the suffering of animals is inevitable'.
OVERALL the one thing the trial and the Judgment has shown is how inappropriate it is for the legal system to be deciding what subjects are valid areas for debate. There are many different political view points on each of the issues, inevitable conflicts between those who hold the power in society and those who seek to end the exploitation of people, animals and the environment in order to create a new society where people have control over their own lives and communities. It is vital for the future of this planet and its population that these subjects are areas of free debate, allowing ordinary people to express their views, so that the self-interested propaganda of greedy multinationals is challenged.
The above is drawn from the McLibel Support Campaign, 5, Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX.
Tel 0207 713 1269. Website www.mcspotlight.org.
McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial by John Vidal is now available in paperback (Pan. £5.99)
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