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McDonald's Corporation v Steel & Morris  EWHC QB 366, known as "the McLibel case" was an English lawsuit for libel 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. Each of two hearings in English courts found some of the leaflet's contested claims to be libellous and others to be true. The partial nature of the victory, the David-and-Goliath nature of the case, and the drawn-out litigation embarrassed McDonald's.
The original case lasted ten years, making it the longest-running case in English history.
McDonald's announced that it did not plan to collect the £40,000 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 (right to a fair trial) and that their conduct should have been protected by Article 10 of the Convention, which protects the right to freedom of expression. The court awarded a judgment of £57,000 against the UK government. 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 judgment, 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"), 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 fast 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.
It was later noted that the reach of the campaign was tiny compared with the level of ensuing controversy. 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. 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.
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. 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". 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 rainforests.