McLibel trial

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It's the
Icon law.svg
To punish
and protect
McDonald's Corporation v Steel & Morris
[1997] EWHC QB 366
Decided: 19 June 1997

The McLibel trial was a classic example of the Streisand effect, where overreaction leads to, at best, a Pyrrhic victory. Very briefly:

  • In 1986 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.
  • 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 end result was that McDonald's will forever be seen by a section of the UK population 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.

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