Food giant McDonald’s successfully silenced public criticism through the threat of libel action – till gardener Helen Steel and postman Dave Morris fought back. Now, in what they hope is the last step in their legal marathon, the ‘McLibel’ Two are taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that citizens have a right to criticise powerful institutions like corporations and governments ‘without being bullied into silence’.
One World spoke to Dave Morris. The Interview
OW: You have been standing up to corporate silencing for a long time. When did your campaign against McDonald’s begin?
DM: I first came across McDonald’s in the 1970s when I was working as a postman in North London, but it wasn’t till the 1980s that I became involved in London Greenpeace, when they launched a campaign against McDonald’s and all it stood for. At the end of the 1980s, McDonald’s took action against dozens of media organisations, trade unions, student groups, and so on – and finally sued us, Helen and myself, in 1990. Since then, we have been through 28 pre-trial hearings as well as a trial which became the longest in English legal history.
OW: Why focus on McDonald’s?
DM: London Greenpeace focused on McDonald’s not only as a major player in the fast food industry, but as an industry which is symbolic of a whole economic system: one that exploits consumers, workers, the environment and animals for profit.
OW: How would you define the wider purpose of your struggle?
DM: First, to raise public concerns about the real nature of transnational corporations and capitalism in general, and their effects on our lives. Second, to defend the rights of the public and campaigners to leaflet and criticize without being bullied into silence with the threat of legal action.
Any oppressive laws can be made unworkable by mass defiance and non-cooperation. I think we have done that in this case. Leaflets given out in their thousands when we were sued [in London] are now being given out in millions all over the world.
OW: Now you are setting off for Strasbourg, to the European Court of Human Rights.
DM: This is really the finishing line for our legal marathon. Though we have basically beaten McDonald’s, we felt the need to take on the oppressive and unfair UK libel laws. We wanted to expose the reality of such laws and to show how they breach the European Convention on Human Rights.
OW: What would count for you as success there?
DM: We are saying that the UK laws breach Article 6, the right to a fair trial, and Article 10, the right to freedom of expression. It’s pretty clear to any person who investigates the subject that the breaches are obvious in the case brought against us by McDonald’s. [McDonald’s spent millions of dollars hiring lawyers and flying over witnesses from all over the world while the impoverished ‘McLibel’ defendants defended themselves, with two hours of free Legal Aid.]
So we feel that – whether or not the judges agree with us – we have already made our point by participating at this level. But of course we hope that the judges will agree with us. And that the UK government will then be compelled to reform aspects of the notoriously oppressive defamation laws in this country.
OW: You will be standing before the judges on Tuesday. When will you know their verdict?
DM: We may know in a few weeks’ time, but it is not unknown for legal processes to take years. And everything in our case seems to take a lifetime! But if there is any justice, we will win – hands down.
OW: If you do win, will that be the end of your struggle?
DM: It would be the end of the legal battle for us, for Helen and myself – but we are only two members of the public out of tens of thousands of anti-McDonald’s activists around the world, and millions of concerned people who are questioning and challenging the power of corporations and governments. We want this institutional power to be abolished, so people can take control their own lives and all the decision-making in their own communities and workplaces.
OW: Has it been worth all these years of your lives?
DM: It has been exhausting and stressful. But at the same time it has been highly empowering to be able to challenge and defeat efforts by a powerful corporation to suppress public opposition. Credit is due to all those who gave us practical and moral support – and, most importantly, who stepped up the anti-McDonald’s protests around the world.
OW: Would you do it all over again?
DM: The struggle to change society is not a luxury that we can take or leave. It is an essential part of all our lives, if we want to create a decent society. The world is facing terminal social and environmental crises – and all of us, in our everyday lives, in our neighbourhoods, have the choice either to accept the unacceptable status quo or to do our best to get together with other people to reclaim the here and now and the future.