The NI Interview
Activist Helen Steel talks with Katrina Payne about
what it’s like to take on McDonald’s in the British courts.
Chatting amiably with Helen Steel in her small London flat it’s hard to believe that she is at the centre of Britain’s longest-running legal battle. The real-life courtroom drama pits Helen and her co-defendant Dave Morris against the US-based fastfood giant McDonald’s. The restaurant chain charged the two with libel after they were caught distributing a brochure produced by London Greenpeace called What’s Wrong with McDonald’s? Everything they don’t want you to know.
‘Whatever happens,’ says Helen, ‘McDonald’s will be the big loser. They may spend $2 billion a year on advertising but we’ve shown the huge contrast between their glossy image and reality. Our main goal was to make sure the truth was told. And we did that.’
The What’s wrong with McDonald’s leaflet denounced the company for a huge range of alleged misdeeds – including the destruction of tropical rainforests to produce the beef sold in its hamburgers, the exploitation of children, the harmful environmental effects of tons of packaging used by the company and the low-pay and poor working conditions of its employees.
The case began nearly three years ago. When it concluded in December last year it had run for nearly 27 months and involved more than 180 witnesses. Bizarrely, the defendants were denied both a jury trial and legal aid – a fact which accounts for the rows of neatly-labelled files and piles of legal documents which threaten to engulf Helen as she speaks.
‘The trial has completely backfired on McDonald’s,’ she says. ‘Their whole aim was not just to silence us, but to use us as a means of intimidating other people into silence.’ Corporations often threaten legal action as a way to muffle critics and McDonald’s was no stranger to this tactic. But Helen was not about to be bullied into apologizing. She was angry. She still is: ‘As far as I’m concerned it’s the company that should be apologizing – for the damage they cause to people, animals and the environment.’
McDonald’s must be wondering why they ever pursued the case, given the amount of attention it’s garnered. In Britain, especially, the trial has provided a public platform for the anti-McDonald’s lobby and there has been constant media coverage. In addition, the original factsheet and later versions have become the most widely-distributed protest leaflet in history. More than two million have been handed out since writs were served on the defendants.
Helen charges that McDonald’s ‘consistently tried to shift the emphasis from facts to viewpoints’ throughout the trial. She is particularly exercised by what she labels McDonald’s ‘manipulation of children’s emotions’ to sell nutritionally dubious food.
‘The company likes to bill itself as a “good neighbour” by donating free softdrinks to school sports days,’ Helen explains. ‘They even assign their corporate clown, Ronald McDonald, to take part in kids’ bicycle-safety shows to build up brand loyalty. Their whole motivation for doing all this stuff is to increase their business. And when you get kids pestering their parents to take them to McDonald’s it’s really hard to withstand that kind of pressure.’
The restaurant chain at first denied that its ads exploit children. But it was harder to defend that position after this selection from the company’s official and confidential ‘Operations Manual’ was read out during the trial: ‘Ronald loves McDonald’s and McDonald’s food. And so do children, because they love Ronald. Remember, children exert a phenomenal influence when it comes to restaurant selection. This means you should do everything you can to appeal to children’s love for Ronald and McDonald’s.’
The company also denied that beef for its burgers came from cattle reared on former rainforest land – until Helen brought in writer Sue Branford, a specialist on Brazil. ‘Sue testified that she’d been to Goias State in Brazil where McDonald’s still get their beef. She’d seen the land being burned and cleared for cattle ranching, and indigenous people being forced out.’
Having to represent herself in court with no prior legal knowledge and no legal aid has been an uphill battle. Yet Helen is unrepentant. She has taken the stress of the trial in her stride, describing her action as something ‘many people would do’ faced with similar circumstances.
Even though the pressure and the pace of the trial have been intense Helen is still sharp and witty. As she traces her finger along the detailed map of Brazil spread before us I ask her what she’s missed of her normal life. She considers this for a while before replying slowly: ‘Basically, I’ve missed having the time to see friends and family.’ Then, almost as an afterthought, she adds: ‘Of course it also means I haven’t had time to get involved in other campaigns.’
No matter what the verdict, Helen believes ‘what really matters is that ordinary people get to hear the facts about McDonald’s and other multinational companies and decide themselves whether or not they want these companies to have such a role and influence in our lives.’
If need be, she says, she will appeal the case and take the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights over oppressive libel laws.
‘At the end of the day you’ve got to stand up to bullies and let them know that they can’t get away with it,’ she reasons. Somehow I can’t help feeling that McDonald’s may have met its match.
For more information contact the McLibel Support Campaign, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX, England. Tel/fax (44) 171 713 1269.
Or see the ‘McSpotlight’ Internet site which has all 313 days of the trial proceedings, plus lots more: http://www.mcspotlight.org/