Final victory for McLibel 2

IssueMarch 2005
News by Albert Beale

A lengthy legal struggle by two campaigners has been vindicated with a final victory in the the European Court of Human Rights: on 15 February the ECHR ruled that the McLibel 2 - Helen Steel and Dave Morris - had been denied freedom of expression and a fair trial when they were sued for libel by the multinational junk food giant McDonald's.

In other words, officialdom has caught up with what the rest of the world knew more than 10 years ago.

What's wrong with McD?

McDonald's served libel writs on members of the London Greenpeace Group back in 1990, to try to stop distribution of a leaflet the group produced entitled “What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know”. Unlike all the other people and organisations threatened by McDonald's over many years in order to stifle criticism, these two members of London Greenpeace stood their ground.

McDonald's had picked on two of the most determined and courageous campaigners imaginable. The result was the longest libel trial in British history, with McDonald's, spending thousands of pounds a day on lawyers, up against the two penniless campaigners.

Trial of the century

The trial ran from 1994 to 1997, and ended with a ruling that many of the leaflet's allegations were proved - but since not all were, then MuckD had technically been libelled. The Two refused to pay any of the damages awarded to McDonald's.

It was obvious to most people that McD had behaved oppressively; and indeed the McLibel case has been a notorious benchmark for self-imposed corporate PR disasters ever since. Dave and Helen failed to get the House of Lords to question the underlying unfairness of the case, but the highest relevant judicial authority, the ECHR, has now ruled unanimously that it was in breach of both Article 6 and Article 10 of the Human Rights Convention, being an unfair trial and an infringement of their right of free expression.

The main ground for the verdicts was the lack of legal aid available to defend libel actions. The court also noted the “chilling” effect of a case such as this on the preparedness of small campaigning groups to stimulate public discussion on important issues.

As Helen and Dave said after the verdict, “Determined grass roots protests and defiance can undermine those who try to silence their critics, and render oppressive laws unworkable.”