This article was first published as "They Said, He Said: Why the Judge Ruled for McDonald's"in PR Watch, Volume 4, No. 2, 2nd Quarter 1997. It original article was authored by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.
The Law and asses'
The outcome of the McLibel case provides a dramatic example of what happens when the "burden of proof" is shifted in libel cases. British laws place the burden of proof on defendants rather than plaintiffs. In the McLibel trial, this meant that McDonald's did not have to prove that the defendants had deliberately circulated false information. Instead, the defendants carried the burden of proving that what they said was true.
In an 800-page ruling, Justice Rodger Bell undertook a piece-by-piece dissection of a four-page fact sheet titled "What's Wrong With McDonald's," published in 1986 by a group whose members included defendants Helen Steel and Dave Morris. Bell found that there was evidence to support all of the arguments made in the leaflet, but ruled against the defendants anyway because, in his opinion, they had "exaggerated" their claims against the food chain.
Under U.S. law, of course, the outcome of a libel trial would not revolve around the question of whether the judge shares the opinions of the people who are being sued. The fundamental issue in this country is whether people have the right to hold different opinions, and to express and debate those differences freely before the court of public opinion.
In England, that right does not exist, as can be seen by reading the following excerpts from the fact sheet and Bell's ruling:
On Rainforest Destruction
The fact sheet stated: "Every year an area of rainforest the size of Britain is cut down or defoliated, and burnt. . . . McDonald's and Burger King are two of the many U.S. corporations using lethal poisons to destroy vast areas of Central American rainforest to create grazing pastures for cattle to be sent back to the States as burgers and pet food, and to provide fat-food packaging materials. (Don't be fooled by McDonald's saying they use recycled paper: only a tiny per cent of it is. The truth is it takes 800 square miles of forest just to keep them supplied with paper for one year. Tons of this end up littering the cities of 'developed' countries.)"
The judge ruled: "In my judgment 'rainforest' in the concept of this leaflet . . . must mean more than tropical forest of any kind. . . . In my view it would mean luxuriant, broad-leaved, evergreen, very wet, canopy forest--very wet because of the very heavy rainfall." The proportion of recycled paper in McDonald's packaging was "small but nevertheless significant," so the fact sheet had broken the law by stating that "only a tiny proportion" was recycled. As for the litter problem, Bell said that McDonald's was not to blame for actions of "the inconsiderate customer."
On Nutritional Value
The fact sheet stated: "A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt (sodium), and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals--which describes an average McDonald's meal--is linked with cancers of the breast and bowel, and heart disease. This is accepted medical fact, not a cranky theory. Every year in Britain, heart disease alone causes about 180,000 deaths."
The judge ruled that some of McDonald's advertisements and literature have inaccurately claimed positive nutritional benefits for their food, and people who eat there frequently, "encouraged by McDonald's advertising," increased their risk of serious diseases. He ruled, however, that this section of the factsheet was defamatory because many of the people it was addressed to didn't eat there often enough to suffer the ill effects. "It is not true in substance and in fact because it is only true . . . in relation to a small proportion of people who eat McDonald's food several times a week."
On Marketing to Children
The fact sheet stated: "Nearly all McDonald's advertising is aimed at children. . . . Thousands of young children now think of burgers and chips every time they see a clown with orange hair. No parent needs to be told how difficult it is to distract a child from insisting on a certain type of food or treat. . . . McDonald's know exactly what kind of pressure this puts on people looking after children. It's hard not to give in to this 'convenient' way of keeping children 'happy', even if you haven't got much money and you try to avoid junk-food."
The judge ruled that "McDonald's advertising and marketing is in large part directed at children, with a view to them pressuring or pestering their parents to take them to McDonald's. . . This is made easier by children's greater susceptibility to advertising, which is largely why McDonald's advertises to them quite so much."
Even so, Bell ruled that this section of the fact sheet was defamatory because the gimmicks used to attract children were not misleading about the quality of the food--"the food is just what a child would see and expect it to be: beef burgers in buns or chicken in a coating, for instance, soft drinks, milk shakes and--'best bits' of all, I suspect--chips or fries."
On Cruelty to Animals
The fact sheet stated: The menu at McDonald's is based on meat. They sell millions of burgers every day in 35 countries throughout the world. This means the constant slaughter, day by day, of animals born and bred solely to be turned into McDonald's products. Some of them--especially chickens and pigs--spend their lives in the entirely artificial conditions of huge factory farms, with no access to air or sunshine and no freedom of movement. Their deaths are bloody and barbaric."
The judge ruled that "Broiler chickens which are used to produce meat for [McDonald's] food spend their whole lives in broiler houses without access to open air or sunshine. I do not find this in itself cruel. However, they spend the last few days of their lives with very little room to move. The severe restriction of movement over those last few days is cruel and [McDonald's is] culpably responsible for that cruel practice. . . . It was not shown that cattle or pigs which are used to produce the Plaintiffs' food are frequently still fully conscious when they have their throats cut. A proportion of the chickens which are used to produce [McDonald's] food are still fully conscious when they have their throats cut. This is a cruel practice for which the Plaintiffs are culpably responsible." This portion of the fact sheet, therefore, "is justified, true in substance and in fact."
On Labor and Union Issues
The leaflet stated: "Workers in catering do badly in terms of pay and conditions. They are at work in the evenings and at weekends, doing long shifts in hot, smelly, noisy environments. Wages are low and chances of promotion minimal. . . . The 'kitchen trade' has a high proportion of workers from ethnic minority groups who, with little chance of getting work elsewhere, are wary of being sacked--as many have been--for attempting union organisation. McDonald's has a policy of preventing unionisation by getting rid of pro-union workers. So far this has succeeded everywhere in the world except Sweden, and in Dublin after a long struggle."
The judge ruled that McDonald's "does pay its workers low wages, thereby helping to depress wages for workers in the catering trade." Even so, he found the leaflet defamatory because, even though McDonald's was "strongly antipathetic to any idea of unionisation", it did "not have a policy of preventing unionisation."
Regarding working conditions, Bell acknowledged the "hard and sometimes noisy and hectic nature of the work, occasional long, extended shifts including late closes, inadequate and unreliable breaks during busy shifts, instances of autocratic management, lack of third party representation in cases of grievance and occasional request to go home early without pay for the balance of the shift if business is slack."
Even so, he concluded, "I do not judge the Plaintiffs' conditions of work, other than pay, to be generally "bad" for the restaurant workers. . . . I find it difficult to see how [McDonald's] could have grown so fast in countries where there is a high expectation of living and working conditions if McDonald's working conditions had been truly and generally bad."
Other SourceWatch resources
- BBC, "'McLibel' pair win legal aid case", BBC Online, February 15, 2005.