McLibel Case

McLibel Case
McLibel case
Court European Court of Human Rights
Full case name McDonald's Corp v Steel (No.4)
Date decided 15 February 2005
Judge(s) sitting Pill LJ, May LJ, Keen J
Case history
Prior action(s) McDonald's Corporation v Steel & Morris (Trial) and 3 procedural appeals (McDonald's Corp v Steel No.1 - 3)
Subsequent action(s) Steel & Morris v United Kingdom
Subsequent ECHR decision
Court European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section)
Full case name Steel & Morris v United Kingdom
Date decided 15 February 2005
Citation(s) application no. 68416/01
Judge(s) sitting M. Pellonpää (President)
Freedom of expression, libel, legal aid

McDonald's Corporation v Steel & Morris [1997] EWHC QB 366, known as "the McLibel case" was an English lawsuit filed by McDonald's Corporation against environmental activists Helen Steel and David Morris (often referred to as "The McLibel Two") over a pamphlet critical of the company. The original case lasted ten years, making it the longest-running libel case in English history.[1]

A feature-length documentary film, McLibel, was made about the case by Franny Armstrong.

Although McDonald's won two hearings of the case in English courts, the partial nature of the victory, the David-vs-Goliath nature of the case, and the drawn-out litigation embarrassed the company. McDonald's announced that it did not plan to collect the £40,000 award[2] that it was awarded by the courts.

Following the decision, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in Steel & Morris v United Kingdom that the pair had been denied a fair trial, in breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights and that their conduct should have been protected by Article 10 of the Convention. The court awarded a judgment of £57,000 against the UK government.[3] McDonald's itself was not involved in, or a party to, this action, as applications to the ECHR are independent cases filed against the relevant state. This judgement, given on 15 February 2005, represented the end of the pair's 20-year battle with McDonald's.



Beginning in 1986, "London Greenpeace", a small environmental campaigning group (not to be confused with the larger Greenpeace International organisation, which they declined to join as they saw it being too "centralised and mainstream for their tastes"[4]), distributed a pamphlet entitled What’s wrong with McDonald’s: Everything they don’t want you to know.

This publication made a number of allegations against McDonald's. The leading allegations were that McDonald's:

  • is complicit in Third World starvation;
  • buys from greedy rulers and elites and practices economic imperialism;
  • wastes vast quantities of grain and water;
  • destroys rainforests with poisons and colonial invasions;
  • sells unhealthy, addictive junk food;
  • alters its food with artificial chemistry;
  • exploits children with its advertising;
  • is responsible for torture and murder of animals;
  • poisons customers with contaminated meat;
  • exploits its workers and bans unions;
  • hides its malfeasance.[5]

It was later noted that the reach of the campaign was tiny compared with the level of ensuing controversy.[6] In 1989, McDonald's responded to the publication of the leaflet by engaging private agents to infiltrate London Greenpeace in order to gather evidence. Along with attending meetings, those agents broke into their offices and stole documents.[7] In 1990, McDonald's brought libel proceedings against five London Greenpeace supporters, Paul Gravett, Andrew Clarke and Jonathan O'Farrell, as well as Steel and Morris, for distributing the pamphlet on the streets of London. This case followed past instances in which McDonald's threatened to sue more than fifty organisations for libel, including Channel 4 television and several major publications. In all such cases, the media outlets settled, and offered apologies for the alleged libel.[8]

Under English law, the burden of proving (on balance of probability) the literal truth of every disparaging statement is on the defendant. This can be an expensive and time-consuming process. Three of the charged individuals (Gravett, Clarke and O'Farrell) chose to apologise as requested by McDonald's. Steel and Morris, however, chose to defend the case.

The two were denied Legal Aid, as was policy for libel cases, despite having very limited income.[9] Thus, they had to represent themselves, though they received significant pro bono assistance. Steel and Morris called 180 witnesses, seeking to prove their assertions about food poisoning, unpaid overtime, misleading claims about how much McDonald's recycled, and "corporate spies sent to infiltrate the ranks of London Greenpeace".[10] McDonald's spent several million pounds, while Steel and Morris spent £30,000; this disparity in funds meant Steel and Morris were not able to call all the witnesses they wanted, especially witnesses from South America who were intended to support their claims about McDonalds' activities in that continent's rain forests.[11]

In its libel allegation, McDonald's asserted that all claims in the pamphlet were false.[12] They found it difficult to support this position despite the indirectness of some of the claims. The case eventually became a media circus. McDonald's executives, including Ray Cesca, took the stand to be questioned by the defendants.[13]

In June 1995, McDonald's offered to settle the case (which "was coming up to its first anniversary in court"[14]) by donating a large sum of money to a charity chosen by the two. They further specified that they would drop the case if Steel and Morris agreed to "stop criticising McDonald's".[14] Steel and Morris secretly recorded the meeting; McDonald's said the pair could criticise McDonald's privately to friends but must cease talking to the media or distributing leaflets. Steel and Morris wrote a letter in response saying they would agree to the terms if McDonald's ceased advertising its products and instead only recommended the restaurant privately to friends.[11]


High Court

The case was adjudicated by Hon. Mr Justice Rodger Bell; it was the first libel case he handled.[15][citation needed] On 19 June 1997, Mr Justice Bell delivered a more than 1,000-page decision largely in favour of McDonald's,[16] summarised by a 45-page paper read in court.[17] Steel and Morris were found liable on several points, although the judge also found that some of the points in the pamphlet were true.[11] McDonald's considered this a legal victory, though it was tempered by the judge's endorsement of some of the allegations in the pamphlet. Specifically, Bell ruled that McDonald's endangered the health of its workers and customers by "misleading advertising", that they "exploit children", that they were "culpably responsible" in the infliction of unnecessary cruelty to animals, and that they were "antipathetic" to unionisation and paid its workers low wages.[18] Furthermore, although the decision awarded £60,000 to the company, McDonald's legal costs were much greater, and the defendants lacked the funds to pay it. Steel and Morris immediately appealed the decision.[19]

In 1998, a documentary film was made about the case, also titled McLibel. This was updated in 2005 after the verdict of the final appeal.

Court of Appeal

In September 1998, the pair sued Scotland Yard for disclosing confidential information to investigators hired by McDonalds and received £10,000 and an apology for the alleged disclosure.[19] An appeal began on 12 January 1999, and lasted 23 court days, ending on 26 February.[20] The case was heard in Court 1 of the Court of Appeal in the Royal Courts of Justice. The case was adjudicated by Lord Justices Pill & May and Mr Justice Keane. The defendants represented themselves in court, assisted by 1st year law student Kalvin P. Chapman (King's College London). McDonalds were represented by libel lawyer Richard Rampton,[21] and a junior barrister, Timothy Atkinson,[22] and Ms Pattie Brinley-Codd of Barlow, Lyde & Gilbert.[23] Steel and Morris filed a 63 point appeal. They had requested a time extension, but were denied. The verdict for the appeal was handed down on 31 March, in Court 1 at the Royal Courts of Justice.[24]

The judges ruled that it was fair comment to say that McDonald's employees worldwide 'do badly in terms of pay and conditions'[25] and true that 'if one eats enough McDonald's food, one's diet may well become high in fat etc., with the very real risk of heart disease.' They further stated that this last finding 'must have a serious effect on their trading reputation since it goes to the very business in which they are engaged. In our judgment, it must have a greater impact on the respondents' [McDonald's] reputation than any other of the charges that the trial judge had found to be true'.[26][Full citation needed]

The Court of Appeal also stated that it had 'considerable sympathy' with the defendants' submissions that the leaflet meant 'that there is a respectable (not cranky) body of medical opinion which links a junk food diet with a risk of cancer and heart disease', that 'this link was accepted both in literature published by McDonald's themselves and by one or more of McDonald's own experts and in medical publications of high repute', and that therefore 'that should have been an end of this part of the case'.[27][Full citation needed] However they ruled against the defendants on the allegation that McDonald's food was a carcinogen.[28][Full citation needed]

As a result of their further findings against the Corporation, the three Lord Justices reduced Mr Justice Bell's award of £60,000 damages to McDonald's by £20,000. The court ruled against the argument by Steel and Morris that multinational corporations should no longer be able to sue for libel over public interest issues; they believed 'that may be seen as an argument of some substance', but ultimately rejected it, on grounds that it was a matter for Parliament.[29][Full citation needed] Steel and Morris announced their intention to appeal over these and other points to the House of Lords, and then take the UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

In response to the verdict, David Pannick QC said in The Times: "The McLibel case has achieved what many lawyers thought impossible: to lower further the reputation of our law in the minds of all right thinking people."[30]

Steel and Morris appealed to the Law Lords, arguing that their right to legal aid had been unjustly denied. When the Law Lords refused to accept the case, the pair formally retained solicitor, Mark Stephens[31] and barrister (now Director of Public Prosecutions (England and Wales)), Keir Starmer QC to file a case with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), contesting the UK government's policy that legal aid was not available in libel cases, and setting out a highly detailed case for what they believed to be the oppressive and unfair nature of UK libel laws in general, and in their case in particular.[32] In September 2004, this action was heard by the ECHR. Lawyers for Steel and Morris argued that the lack of legal aid had breached the pair's right to freedom of expression and to a fair trial.

European Court of Human Rights

An anti-McDonald’s leafletting campaign in front of the McDonald’s restaurant in Leicester Square, London, during the European Social Forum season, 2004-10-16.

On 15 February 2005, the ECHR ruled that the original case had breached Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered that the UK government pay Steel and Morris £57,000 in compensation. In their ruling, the ECHR criticised the way in which UK laws had failed to protect the public right to criticise corporations whose business practices affect people's lives and the environment (which violates Article 10); they also ruled that the trial was biased because of the defendants' comparative lack of resources and what they believed were complex and oppressive UK libel laws.


In response to the ECHR's decision, Steel and Morris issued the following press release:

Having largely beaten McDonald's... we have now exposed the notoriously oppressive and unfair UK laws. As a result of the... ruling today, the government may be forced to amend or scrap some of the existing UK laws. We hope that this will result in greater public scrutiny and criticism of powerful organisations whose practices have a detrimental effect on society and the environment. The McLibel campaign has already proved that determined and widespread grass roots protests and defiance can undermine those who try to silence their critics, and also render oppressive laws unworkable. The continually growing opposition to McDonald's and all it stands for is a vindication of all the efforts of those around the world who have been exposing and challenging the corporation's business practices.[33]

The 2005 film quoted McDonald's as offering little comment on the European Court decision other than to point out that it was the Government and not McDonalds who was the losing party and that "times have changed and so has McDonald's."[citation needed] On a website aiming to state its view on issues raised about it, McDonald's stated that the case is in the past and the issues more so, and that both sides in it have moved on - although Morris and Steel did continue related litigation.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ "McLibel pair get police payout". BBC. 2000-07-05.  "'McLibel' pair in fresh court bid". BBC. 2004-09-07. 
  2. ^ "McDonald's lets McLibel case rest". AP. 1997-07-19. 
  3. ^ Press release issued by the Registrar. "Chamber Judgment Steel and Morris v. The United Kingdom" The European Court of Human Rights, 15 February 2005. Received 1 September 2008.
  4. ^ pg 388 of No Logo
  5. ^ "What's wrong with McDonald's?". McSpotlight. Retrieved 2006-07-14. 
  6. ^ "London Greenpeace's campaign was winding down, and only a few hundred copies of the contentious leaflet had ever been distributed." pg 391 of No Logo
  7. ^ "Fran Tiller interview: The Transcript". Retrieved 2008-11-13. 
  8. ^ "Over the past 15 years, McDonald's has threatened legal action against more than 90 organisations in the U.K., including the BBC, Channel 4, the Guardian, The Sun, the Scottish TUC, the New Leaf Shop, student newspapers, and a children's theatre group. Even Prince Philip received a stiff letter. All of them backed down and many formally apologised in court." from "Why Won't British TV Show a Film about McLibel?", Franny Armstrong, 19 June 1998, The Guardian; as quoted in No Logo.
  9. ^ "For 313 days in court - the longest trial in English history - an unemployed postal worker (Morris) and a community gardener (Steel) went to war with chief executives from the largest food empire in the world." pg 389 of No Logo
  10. ^ pg 389 of No Logo
  11. ^ a b c McLibel film, 1998
  12. ^ "Statement of Claim". Retrieved 2008-11-13. 
  13. ^ Vidal, J. McLibel(hardback), pp.11-20
  14. ^ a b pg 387 of No Logo, 1st ed.
  15. ^ Bell J had never tried, or acted as a barrister in, a libel case. His area of law had been primarily professional negligence, and so it has been felt by many that he was "led" by Richard Rampton QC, for McDonalds, throughout most of the case.
  16. ^ "The Court Service - Queens Bench Division - Judgment - McDonald's Corporation & McDonald's Restaurants Limited against Helen Marie Steel & David Morris". Archived from the original on 2008-06-05. Retrieved 2008-11-13. 
  17. ^ "On 19 June 1997, the judge finally handed down the verdict....It felt like an eternity to most of us sitting there, as Judge Rodger Bell read out his forty-five-page ruling - a summary of the actual verdict, which was over a thousand pages long. Although the judge deemed most of the pamphlet's claims too hyperbolic to be acceptable (he was particularly unconvinced by its direct linking of McDonald's to "hunger in the 'Third World'"), he deemed others to be based on pure fact." pg 389-390 of No Logo.
  18. ^ "Judgement Day Verdict - Highlights". McSpotlight. 1997-06-19. Retrieved 2006-07-14. 
  19. ^ a b BBC News (5 July 2000). "McLibel pair get police payout". Retrieved 2007-05-12. 
  20. ^ "Press Release - McLibel Support Campaign; 6 January 1999". Retrieved 2008-11-13. 
  21. ^ One Brick Court - Barristers
  22. ^ Curriculum Vitae - Timothy Atkinson
  23. ^ Curriculum Vitae - Patti Brinley-Codd
  24. ^ Press Release - McLibel Support Campaign; 25 March 1999
  25. ^ [Appeal Judgment p247]
  26. ^ [Judgment p264]
  27. ^ [p169]
  28. ^ [p170-2]
  29. ^ [p287]
  30. ^ The Times, 24.04.1999
  31. ^ Gibb, Frances (2005-02-16). "McDonald's gets a taste of defeat as Europe backs the McLibel Two". London: Times newspapers. Retrieved 2011-01-29. 
  32. ^ European Court of Human Rights Application
  33. ^ "Victory for McLibel 2 against UK Government". McSpotlight. 2005-02-15. Retrieved 2006-07-14. 


External links

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