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Legal Issues Surrounding Mclibel Essay

2569 words - 11 pages

In 1986 members of the environmental activist group, London Greenpeace (unrelated to Greenpeace International), published a leaflet entitled “What’s wrong with McDonald’s: Everything they don’t want you to know”. The publication made critical allegations of global fast-food chain McDonald’s. Distributed to the public by hand and online, the leaflet was received by a global audience.The publication made the following allegations, stating that McDonald’s:
• was complicit in Third World starvation;
• bought from greedy rulers and elites and practices economic imperialism;
• wasted vast quantities of grain and water;
• destroyed rainforests with poisons and colonial invasions;
• sold ...view middle of the document...

However it was London Greenpeace who drew all of the criticisms together and printed them in a permanent form, a condition of libel. Had the manner in which the statements were published differed, for example, been spoken, then the case would have instead been slanderous.

The case lasted 313 days in court, making it the longest case in English history to date. Libel is actionable per se, which means that it is the conduct which is wrong, irrespective of whether or not any harm is caused to the claimant as a result. McDonald’s purposes for starting the proceedings were to secure damages and an injunction. However McDonald’s did not pursue the damages and in hindsight they claim that they were only interested in establishing the truth. As defamation falls under tort law, a branch of common law, there was no legal aid available to Steel and Morris. McDonald’s were at an unfair advantage, being able to afford the highest quality lawyers, whereas the defendants were self-represented. Steel and Morris raised and spent approximately only £30,000 throughout the 7 years of the case. McDonald’s expenditure was suspected to be somewhat in the region of £5-15 million. In June 1997, Mr Justice Bell read his judgement summary, stating Steel and Morris had not proved the allegations against McDonald's on rainforest destruction, packaging, food poisoning, starvation in the Third World, heart disease & cancer and bad working conditions (McSpotlight, 1997). However they did successfully show that McDonald’s was responsible for exploit children with their advertising, falsely advertising their food as nutritious, risking the health of their long-term regular customers, were "culpably responsible" for cruelty to animals reared for their products, were "strongly antipathetic" to unions and pay their workers low wages (Nicholson, 2000, p. 1).

Steel and Morris were protected by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, the right to freedom of expression, but could not use it as a defence as there were limitations which came with the act. One of which being the protection of the reputation and rights of others. Constitutional law governs the relationship between the state and its citizens. As well as governing issues such as freedom of speech, constitutional law also governs issues regarding the right to a fair trial. Five years after the verdict of the case, in May 2004, Helen and David appeared in court again, for their appeal against the fact that they had an unfair case. The European Court of Human Rights accepted their claim and agreed that the McLibel trial breached Article 6, their right to a fair trial, and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Helen Steel (2005) said, “[The European Court of Justice] finally recognized what we have been saying for the last 15 years, which is that UK libel laws are oppressive and unfair and act as a barrier to freedom speech for ordinary people”. The court awarded judgement of £57,000...

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