(en) comment on the Mclibel decision

Lyn and Shawn (linjin@tao.ca)
Thu, 19 Jun 1997 19:46:22 pst

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------- Forwarded Message Follows ------- Date: Thu, 19 Jun 1997 15:33:47 -0700 (PDT) From: MichaelP <papadop@peak.org> Subject: comment on the Mclibel decision

McDonald's Wins English Libel Case Against Vegetarians

After the longest trial in English legal history, McDonald's won a libel case Thursday against two vegetarians. But it was a hollow victory for the fast-food empire, which reportedly spent up to $16 million and nearly three years in court fighting an unemployed mailman and a part-time barmaid.

A 1984 pamphlet produced by London Greenpeace, an activist group not linked to Greenpeace International, alleged that McBurger's promoted an unhealthy diet, ruined the environment, was hostile to trade unions, exploited children and workers and abused animals. McDonald's called the attacks false and defamatory and took Dave Morris and Helen Steel to court almost three years ago. Three other defendants apologized, but Morris and Steel acted to defend themselves without legal representation.

The judge had denied a jury trial because the issues were "too complicated". Today the judge issued a verdict. Internet reports are that the judge said he found that the 1984 statements by Steel and Morris "injured the plaintiff's reputation." Judge Bell issued a three-volume opinion which took nearly 2-hours to summarize orally.

"In my view, the unjustified allegations of blame for starvation in the Third World and destruction of rainforests, and of knowingly selling food with a serious risk, of damaging their customers' health, are particularly damaging,"

"On the other hand, there has been an element of justification in relation to the plaintiff's advertising, their responsibility for some cruelty toward some of the animals which are reared and slaughtered for their products...and low pay,"

The judge said McDonald's was wrongly defamed when the defendants accused it of destroying rainforests and moving small farmers off their land in Third World countries to make way for cattle farming. The judge also agreed that McDonald's runs advertisements encouraging children to pester their parents into going to the fast-food outlets.

McDonald's sued Morris and Steel over 16 specific criticisms levelled at the Corporation in the flier. Under British libel laws the burden of proof lay with the defendants, who had to provide primary evidence that their criticisms were true. A verdict of libellous or not libellous will be given on each of these 16 points.

Steel and Morris also counter-sued following McDonald's publication of a leaflet claiming the 'factsheet' to be "lies". This means that Justice Bell may yet pass another set of verdicts on the same 16 points but from a different angle. These verdicts will rule whether McDonald's have actually proven that each of the 16 specific criticisms are untrue and that Steel and Morris knew them to be untrue. In addition to these 32 separate libel verdicts, the court will rule on whether McDonald's have proven that Morris and Steel were involved in the publication and distribution of the 1984 factsheet.

Modern English libel law originated at the end of the eighteenth century in the determination of the government to stifle the freedom of those who wished to argue the issues raised by the French Revolution. Libel law, along with sedition, was the legal mechanism used to suppress dissent.

Its most important features have remained unchanged since the early nineteenth century. Liability is absolute. It makes no difference that those involved in communicating a libellous statement have acted in perfect good faith, have no intention of doing harm, or even lack any knowledge whatsoever of what is being communicated. - so that printers and distributors of a document are found liable even if they have no knowledge of its content.

The defendant in an English libel action can only succeed by proving that the published facts are true (the reverse of the usual presumption of innocence) or by persuading the court that what is published is a fair comment based on true facts and on a matter of public interest.

McDonald's had no need to prove actual monetary loss - the purpose of a libel action is to seek redress for damage to reputation. But good reputation is always presumed and the defendant is not allowed to call evidence to the contrary.

The judge had to determine if the words complained of by McDonald's were fact or comment. If they were not comment and not true in every respect they would involve "misrepresentation of facts" and McDonald's would prevail.

Earlier reports are that Morris and Steel intend to appeal an adverse ruling to the European Court, What is legally untested in English law is how far the law of libel infringes free speech rights- Article 10 of the European Convention states that exceptions to the right of free speech the exceptions to that right must not go beyond what is "necessary in a democratic society". Under that Convention, as under United States law , public figures cannot use the law to suppress honest criticism. That's why McDonald's brought this case in England.

There are some more possibilities.

Steel and Morris intend to sue the undercover spies hired by McDonald's to infiltrate London Greenpeace. Evidence came to light in court that these undercover spies had actually been involved in distributing the allegedly libellous 'factsheet' themselves. Consequently, Morris and Steel's intention to sue them if damages are awarded, may lead to the spies having to pay some of the damages.

Reports are that McDonald's has been awarded $94k damages. The reports state nothing about cost awards, and nothing about the petition for an injunction to ban Morris and Steel from distributing the original leaflet "or similar criticisms". Unbelievably, McDonald's also want such a ban to extend to "servants and agents" of Steel and Morris. [This means anyone using the InterNet to circulate the original-or similar- criticisms.]

Michael P


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