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September 1994
The Satya Interview: Dan Mills of the McLibel Campaign



After a brief break for summer, the case of McDonald’s versus London Greenpeace (not connected with Greenpeace International) began again in London on September 12th. The defendants — Helen Steel and Dave Morris — are unwaged environmental activists who are fighting an action brought against them by the mighty McDonald’s for allegedly distributing a libelous leaflet outside McDonald’s restaurants from 1985 to 1989. Satya talked to Dan Mills, co-ordinator of publicity and the office from which the McLibel Campaign, as it is being called, is being fought.

Q. How did this whole thing begin?
A. London Greenpeace launched a campaign in 1985 against McDonald’s and produced a six-sided leaflet, setting out in great detail why McDonald’s should be boycotted and bad things it is involved in around the world: exploiting workers, killing animals, destroying the environment (through, for example, its excessive use of packaging and cattle ranching on ex-rainforest land), and indoctrinating children through advertisements with the Ronald McDonald character into unhealthy eating habits.

Q. Why did McDonald’s take so long to sue?
A. Some people think it was because McDonald’s felt it had to improve its act in a number of different areas before it was confident enough to sue. But, in any event, the reason the multinational sued was to stop the members of London Greenpeace distributing this leaflet and get an apology out of the individuals involved. It was partly successful. It sued five people and three of them apologized; because they were faced with the enormous task of fighting this case, and there is no right to legal aid in libel cases in the U.K. McDonald’s has really shot itself in the foot, however, because it thought the final two — Helen Steel and Dave Morris — would back down and not take matters this far. In order not to lose face, McDonald’s has had to go ahead with the trial, and it’s generating a lot of bad publicity for the company. At the very least the trial could go on well into April 1995.

Q. You say you can’t get any legal aid for libel?
A. Dave and Helen are unwaged and can’t afford lawyers. That means they’re representing themselves — litigants in person. This puts them at something of a disadvantage especially as McDonald’s is employing a team of solicitors and a top libel barrister, who is being paid thousands of pounds a day to appear in court.

On the other hand, Dave and Helen at this stage are probably the best people to present their case. They’ve been presenting their case before the judge for four years in all the pre-trial hearings and they know the case inside out. They’re getting stuck into the cross-examination of McDonald’s’ witnesses and are proving very effective. Of course, they made mistakes at the beginning, but they’re learning from them. The judge is also being very helpful; he’s asking a lot of his own questions; and quite often when Dave and Helen are faltering, the judge will interject and ask a probing question of the McDonald’s’ witness. So, at least he’s taking an interest!

One of the outrageous aspects of this case is that Dave & Helen were denied their right to a jury trial. Now libel is actually a civil matter, and civil cases usually involve juries. McDonald’s argued that because there was going to be some scientific argument on the link between its food and cancer, ordinary members of the jury wouldn’t understand this, even though Dave and Helen could! The judge accepted this. We appealed to the higher courts but they refused to overturn this ruling. The Defendants are thinking of appealing to the European Court of Human Rights after the trial has finished in the U.K.

Q. Are you getting any help at all?
A. There are a lot of barristers and solicitors who have taken an interest in the case and are giving informal legal advice, some by coming to court to sit behind Dave and Helen and give them advice and suggest questions. This will continue for the whole trial. We’ve also got volunteers who are making notes and retrieving documents during the trial.

What is not helping is that McDonald’s has refused to hand over a lot of documents relevant to the issues in the trial — documents they clearly have. This has caused some friction, and the judge has ordered McDonald’s’ executives to swear affidavits that McDonald’s does not have the documents concerned.

Q. How is the trial being run?
A. The trial has been divided into six sections, corresponding to the six main issues: advertising, nutrition, the environment, animals, packaging, and employment. Within each unit the court will hear McDonald’s’ witnesses and then our witnesses — in total 80 for us, and about 90 for McDonald’s. The judge will then decide whether Dave and Helen have proved their case on each issue. They have to prove that most of the assertions in the fact sheet were true in order to win.

Q. How much has already been covered?
A. We’ve covered the whole of packaging. McDonald’s’ nutrition witnesses are still on the stand, and we’ve also started on advertising, unions, and animals. But most of it is still yet to come.

Q. Do you feel you won the packaging round?
A. It’s hard to know. I think so, but it’s up to the judge to decide whether we’ve proved our case and whether what we have said is true or ‘fair comment’ — basically true in spite of exaggeration.

Q. What happened?
A. Paul Preston, the U.K. President of McDonald’s, said that if one million customers each bought a soft drink, he would not expect more than 100 to 150 cups to end up as litter, even though an article read out in court quoted Preston as saying that litter is the biggest source of complaint against McDonald’s! Preston also asserted that styrofoam packaging is less environmentally damaging than regularly washing plates, knives and forks — quite a strange notion.

The issue of CFCs and HCFCs in the production of styrofoam packaging was also discussed. The ‘Environmental Affairs’ Manager of Perseco (the sole supplier of McDonald’s’ packaging in over 60 countries) admitted that in 1989 — the time of the alleged libel — these gases were still being used in 29 countries, and even now HCFCs are used in the Philippines and Turkey. In 1989, McDonald’s was only using 7% recycled content in their packaging. In addition to the toxic waste and ozone-damage involved in the production of packaging, styrene — a component of styrofoam — leaches into the food. Packaging, of course, also ends up in landfills.

In the U.K., McDonald’s is still using styrofoam packaging, and we’ve just launched a new campaign called “Operation Send It Back.” We’re asking people to send back sackfuls of McDonald’s' litter to Paul Preston. The same operation in the U.S. was a major factor in causing McDonald’s to decide to stop using styrofoam in the U.S.

Q. What were the arguments in the employment section?
A. Our case is that McDonald’s is anti-trade union and makes every effort around the world to prevent trade unions setting up in its stores. Preston said that if employees wanted to join a union then they should. But the Defendants presented him with two incidents in London in the 1980s when staff had expressed an interest in joining trade unions and managers had called in the U.K. head of human resources to ‘talk’ to the discontented staff. I can’t see how McDonald’s is going to come out of this without seeming anti-union.

Q. And advertising?
A. Paul Preston claimed that the character Ronald McDonald was not intended to sell food to children but actually to promote the ‘McDonald’s’ experience.’ Preston, however, agreed that Ronald is “a useful marketing tool.” Helen and Dave mentioned in court that the actor who played the first Ronald McDonald had quit and had publicly apologized for brainwashing children into doing wrong.

Q. You mentioned nutrition.
A. We have the former Assistant Attorney General of Texas, who is coming to give evidence about a McDonald’s advertising campaign which was launched in 1987 and where McDonald’s promoted its food as "nutritious" and provided a balanced meal. The Attorneys General of Texas, California, and New York threatened to sue McDonald’s over this “deceptive” campaign. The Texas Attorney General said in a letter to the company that it should stop showing the advertisements because “McDonald’s’ food is, as a whole, not nutritious.” Helen and Dave also read out an internal memo of a meeting at McDonald’s — one of the few papers which McDonald’s had actually managed to find and give us a copy of — produced just before the advertising campaign began. McDonald’s had been planning strategy with public relations advisors and the memo said: “McDonald’s should attempt to deflect the basic negative thrust of our critics. How do we do this? By talking moderation and balance. We can’t really address or defend nutrition. We don’t sell nutrition and people don’t come to McDonald’s for nutrition.”

We also had a minor triumph with a McDonald’s witness called Professor Wheelock. He’s a paid consultant for McDonald’s who has put his name to all the nutrition guides that McDonald’s has produced in the U.K. since 1990. He actually agreed with us on a lot of things about the food; he admitted that there is considerable amount of evidence that diseases such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and some forms of cancer are related to a diet high in fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar and low in fiber (and that a typical McDonald’s’ meal has this content). He defined nutritious as meaning “contains nutrients” although he then accepted that all food possesses nutrients. His definition of “junk food” was “whatever a person doesn’t like” — in his case, semolina. At this stage, a clearly embarrassed Richard Rampton, McDonald’s’ barrister, intervened and said that McDonald’s didn’t object to the description of its food as junk — an admission it hadn’t made before.

Q. And animals?
A. In the last week before the break, Dr. Neville Gregory — a McDonald’s witness — reported on the rearing and slaughter of animals. He was quite independent-minded, and, although he indicated that McDonald’s’ suppliers had standards above the industry average, I think it was quite a revelation to the judge and the other people in the court as to what happens in slaughterhouses and factory farms.

Q. What did Gregory say?
A. He said that 44% of the chickens in McDonald’s’ suppliers have leg abnormalities; and that many chicks after hatching are rejected by the company, put into dustbin-sized containers, and gassed. Many receive injuries on the way to the slaughterhouse, if they don’t die on the way. Dr. Gregory also stated that the accuracy of the captive bolt pistol — used to stun cattle before their throats are slit — was not particularly good in the establishment he visited: half the skulls he examined showed an inaccurate aim, and he estimated imperfect stunning at 3.7%. One of the outrageous things about the trial is that Dr. Gregory was allowed to visit McDonald’s’ suppliers, but none of our independent experts was allowed by McDonald’s to do so.

Q. What happens if you lose the trial?
A. We’ve actually brought in a counter-claim against McDonald’s. McDonald’s published a leaflet in April before the trial began explaining why it was going to court. The leaflet accused its critics (including Helen and Dave) of telling lies — it used the actual word — and Helen and Dave were able to counter claim over this, suing McDonald’s for libel. This does not affect the trial itself, but the judge will in the end decide on McDonald’s’ case and ours, and McDonald’s will have to prove that what the leaflet said was lies and that we knew it was lies. So, I think that even if we do lose the main claim — and it’s hard to say whether we will or won’t — we’ve got a very good chance of winning the counter-claim. At this stage McDonald’s is pinning all its hopes on being able to say that although it’s had all this bad publicity, it has still won and this leaflet is not true. However, if we win the counter-claim, even if McDonald’s wins the main claim, we’ll be able to say that although we weren’t able to meet the high burden of proof necessary in libel cases, McDonald’s hasn’t been able to prove that the leaflet was lies.

Q. What can people in the U.S. do to help?
A. Well, donations can be made. You can write checks to “McLibel Support Campaign” and send them to the McLibel Support Campaign, c/o P.O. Box 120, East Calais, VT 05650. We’re happy to send you information on the trial, leaflets, or more information. You should write to the above address. Also, boycott McDonald’s and spread the word.



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