Vindicated in the longest court battle in British legal history, David Morris and Helen Steel celebrated in London yesterday – not with the customary champagne outside the High Court, but with a demonstration outside McDonald’s.
For 15 years the two activists from north London fought a case against the world’s biggest burger chain which seemed doomed. Yesterday, the Goliath of the fast-food world and the Government were humbled when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the two did not have a fair trial.
Mr Morris, a former postman, hailed the ruling as a “total victory”, adding: “It has been an empowering experience because it shows that ordinary people like us can stand up against seemingly impossible odds and win”.
True though that may be, it does not explain the importance of yesterday’s court victory. The determination of two activists has shaken a multinational, stirred a debate about food and health and prompted a review of British libel law. Because of the “McLibel Two”, the rich and powerful may no longer be able to go to court safe in the knowledge that everything is stacked in their favour.
One of the most remarkable stories in British legal history is also the tale of how McDonald’s committed one of the biggest own goals in the annals of corporate public relations.
The story began when a pamphlet, “What’s Wrong with McDonald’s”, was distributed which accused McDonald’s of selling unhealthy food. Neither Mr Morris, now 50, nor Ms Steel, now 40, wrote the six-page flyer but both were members of an organisation which produced it called London Greenpeace (not related to the environmental group, Greenpeace).
When they served a series of libel writs against activists, McDonald’s had little reason to suspect the scale of their error. Three of the accused apologised to escape legal action and even Mr Morris and Ms Steel, who fought on, believed they were destined to lose.
Mr Morris said yesterday: “We were told we did not have a cat in hell’s chance … but we decided that we had to fight because McDonald’s were suing a lot of people and creating a climate of fear.” With only occasional sessions of free advice from a sympathetic barrister, Keir Starmer, the two were forced back on their own resources. They had to co-ordinate their defence on Tube journeys on the way to court. The trial, which came to court in 1994, included 313 days of testimony, eight weeks of closing speeches and six months of deliberation.