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The "McLibel" travesty

Posted by Richard Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Reported by the Independent today, and featured prominently on the BBC – quelle surprise – is the victory of the so-called "McLibel duo", Helen Steel and David Morris.

They have just won their case in the European Court of Human Rights, that the UK legal system breached the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression. This was because they were denied legal aid to defend themselves against a libel suit from McDonalds after the pair had distributed defamatory leaflets against the fast food chain and had refused – after multiple warnings – to desist.

Unable to afford their own lawyers, the pair defended themselves in what became the longest civil or criminal action in English legal history, lasting 314-days.

The oddest thing is that, during the course of the trial – and mainly because of it – the pair gained massive publicity for their cause – being elevated in the process from unknown activities to international figures, lauded by fellow campaigners throughout the world.

On that basis, the very fact that they were denied legal aid and were thus seen as the plucky Davids taking on the corporate Goliath, gained them immeasurable publicity and enabled them to put their case in a way that they could not even have dreamed of before the trial started.

So much publicity did they get, in fact, that the trial has been regarded as one of the worst corporate PR disasters of all time.

Thus, one can hardly agree with the ECHR that the lack of legal aid effectively denied the pair the right to a fair trial, and still less that it also breached their right to freedom of expression.

As to the fair trial, in my view the judge – as is required when dealing with defendants in person – was scrupulously fair. He bent over backwards in affording Steel and Morris every opportunity in presenting what was, in fact, a very thin case, as indeed did the plaintiff’s legal team.

Oddly enough, the threat to their case came from a much more insidious source. Of a technical nature, arguing over the merits of the claims in the leaflet, Steel and Morris needed the back-up of expert witnesses, with experience of the food industry.

From them, they got very little assistance, most experts refusing to help them on the basis that taking on McDonalds was not a career-enhancing move.

However, in their search for assistance, they did contact me and, even though I did not agree with much of what was on the offending leaflet, I agreed to assist them and, in fact, gave expert evidence in the trial. (When a television documentary was made after the event, I had the singular and amusing experience of seeing myself being portrayed by an actor with a thick Yorkshire accent, the assumption being that, living in Yorkshire, I must have been thus handicapped).

I took a considerable amount of criticism for my action but, as I said at the time, right or wrong, Morris and Steel deserved a fair trial – and for that they needed experts.

In the end, I believe they got their fair trial, and they got massive publicity and the opportunity to express themselves in spades. The only travesty now is that the ECHR judges found in their favour. And, as always, the long-suffering taxpayer is going to have to bear the cost.