The McLibel trial was a classic example of the Streisand effect, where overreaction leads to, at best, a Pyrrhic victory.
In 1986 British eco-activists calling themselves London Greenpeace (no relationship with Greenpeace International who they thought of as "too mainstream") issued a leaflet critical of McDonald's, saying McDonald's is a corporation that wants to take over the world by opening stores worldwide. They complain how the food has "chemical additives" that they allege causes "ill-health, and hyperactivity" (food dye perhaps? They don't specify.) The leaflet also accused McDonald's of exploiting workers by overworking them with no overtime benefit and preventing them from forming unions. McDonald's also uses poor countries' lands to grow meat (which uses vast amounts of resources), thus robbing people. Additionally McDonald's pollutes through its packaging as well as the land use to grow meat. Since McDonald's is the biggest meat user, it also contributes a record amount to emissions that are fueling global warming. Finally, the leaflet issues a sweeping condemnation of meat consumption in how the meat industry horrendously mistreats livestock, but targets McDonald's as the prime user.
The leaflet calls attention to the protests being made, every 16th of October, as well as McDonald's attempts to resist these protests. Two key figures, supporters of London Greenpeace, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, are listed as defendants in a High Court Libel trial. The leaflet then tells readers to stand up to legal intimidation in the name of free speech.
The leaflet above preceded these events.
- In 1989 McDonald's started libel proceedings against five members of London Greenpeace.
- Three of these five agreed to apologise and the charges were dropped.
- The other two, Helen Steel and David Morris, despite being denied legal aid (as is the norm for UK libel cases), decided to fight.
- Then followed a ten-year court case setting the record for the longest-running English libel case
- Libel laws pretty much everywhere else require that for a statement to qualify as libel, it must be A) written or printed, B) defamatory and C) not true, whereas British libel law requires only A and B. This means that in Britain, a written or printed defamatory statement constitutes libel, even if the said statement is demonstrably true. (In other countries, a demonstrably true statement can never be libelous, no matter how defamatory.) So...
- McDonald's won in the end but never collected the £40,000 judgement.
- Steel and Morris then took the case to the European Court of Human Rights and won, getting a judgement of £57,000 in 2005, effectively ending the case. The pair were represented by Keir Starmer QC who later went on to become leader of the Labour Party.
The result was that McDonald's will forever be seen by a section of the UK population[Who?] as bullies and that the points from the leaflet, that McDonald's exploits both people and animals, got far more publicity than could ever be achieved by a minor leaflet campaign. A larger-scale result was that both the extreme plaintiff-friendliness of the UK's libel laws and the issue of libel tourism received intense public attention, eventually leading to governmental action to curb legal abuses.