posted to on June 8, 2005


Scheduled for release in U.S. theaters on June 10, "McLibel" is the inspiring story of Helen Steel and Dave Morris, two London environmental activists who were sued for libel by the fast food giant in 1990 after their group had been infiltrated by undercover agents. The trial, which was the longest in British history, heard expert witnesses from both sides evaluating whether McDonalds was guilty of the following offenses:


  • Damage to the environment, including the use of non-recyclable packaging and wholesale destruction of the environment.


  • Damage to the human organism through bad nutrition, including obesity and cancer.


  • Assaults on working people through low pay and speedup.


  • Victimization of children by bombarding television shows with fast food ads featuring Ronald McDonald.


  • Cruelty to animals who are slaughtered as if they were inanimate objects.


The odds were against the defendants from the beginning. British libel laws are considered plaintiff-friendly since the words of the defendant are considered false until proven otherwise. In the case of Helen Steel and Dave Morris, the words were those found in a 1986 brochure that can be read here: (More about this website momentarily.)


McDonald's had taken advantage of British libel laws to intimidate any news outlet that aired unfavorable reports. If a newspaper or TV station would say 'mea culpa,' the libel suit would be withdrawn. So, for example, Channel 4 television apologized in High Court for a 1990 program implying that McDonald's was responsible for rainforest destruction in Costa Rica. Despite their mild-mannered demeanor, Steel and Morris decided that they would rather fight than grovel.


Besides being hampered by British libel laws, they were at a disadvantage in how they were to be represented at court. Legal aid was only available for criminal cases, so they had to scuffle around to find legal defense. Meanwhile, McDonald's paid twenty million dollars for its legal team and lined up dozens of "expert witnesses" cut from the same cloth as those who used to testify that smoking cigarettes was harmless. Eventually, the two defendants secured the pro bono services of Attorney Keir Starmer and lined up their own expert witnesses, who are interviewed throughout the film.


Another disadvantage was that the judge decided to make this a jury-less trial. This meant that the two rather plebian defendants (Helen Steel was a gardener and busdriver, Dave Morris a postman) were at the mercy of an upper-class judge.


One of their most powerful witnesses was Howard Lyman, a former cattle rancher who had grown disgusted with the treatment of animals in this highly commodified food-chain and the consequences of commercial farming on his own health and the consumer. After developing a tumor on his spine that he was convinced was brought on by chemical additives on his land, he changed his life radically. He became a vegan and an outspoken critic of industrial ranching. In addition to his role as a witness at the McLibel's trial, he was a guest on Oprah Winfrey's TV show where he warned about the dangers of Mad Cow disease. Information about Howard Lyman's book "The Mad Cowboy" and a documentary based on his life can be seen at:


Even though he was not a witness, Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," is heard throughout the documentary. Schlosser is clearly grounded in a class analysis. His critique of McDonald's focuses on the corporate drive to maximize profit without concern for the environment, the consumer or the worker. In an excerpt from his book on the McSpotlight website, we learn how Burger King, another fast food giant, gets its strawberry milkshake to taste just right:


"A typical artificial strawberry flavour, such as that found in a Burger King strawberry milk shake, contains the following ingredients: amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amyl ketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethlyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butonone (10% solution in alcohol), a-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylactophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, g-undecalactone, vanillin and solvent."


Based solely on the strength of their testimony and that of the expert witnesses, Steel and Morris wound up with a partial victory. They were forced to pay 40 thousand pounds for certain "libelous" charges they had made, but not others. Immediately after the verdict was announced, Steel and Morris held a press conference announcing that they would rather go to jail than pay a penny to McDonald's. Publicity surrounded the trial amounted to a PR disaster for the fast food giant. Not only did they back off from collecting their libel award, they decided not to press forward with an injunction against further leafleting in front of their stores.


On September 20, 2000 Steel and Morris launched their own case against the British government in the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the McLibel trial and British libel laws violated the European Convention on Human Rights Article 6 (Right to a Fair Trial) and Article 10 (Right to Freedom of Expression). The film shows the two traveling to Strasbourg to press their case.


The film ends on a triumphant note on February 15th of this year, when the McLibel two received an email notification that the European Court had decided in their favor. Internet addicts will get a big kick out of this scene as you see Steel and Morris waiting anxiously to receive email via Eudora, while weeding through spam to get the message that they were expecting.


Indeed, the Internet was critical to this entire campaign. The film shows the two deliberating on how to get their message out when the corporate media was obviously intent on keeping their anti-corporate message to the margins. In 1996 they hit upon the idea of setting up a website, which is one of the more important environmental resources on the Internet.


Although "Super Size Me" garnered excellent and well-deserved reviews (and is referred to briefly in "McLibel"), I found "McLibel" to be a more compelling and useful film. Unlike Morgan Spurlock, Helen Steel and Dave Morris are less intent on being "personalities." With their self-effacing and sincere manner, they put the focus on getting out the truth rather than striking dramatic poses. They are the quintessential activists of the 1990s who came into prominence as part of the anti-globalization movement. With their emphasis on democratic control and harmony between humanity and nature, they make the case for abolition of private property without ever resorting to dogmatic formulations. The Marxist left can surely learn from such activists.


"McLibel" was directed by Fanny Armstrong with help from legendary British director Ken Loach, who was responsible for dramatic reenactments of the trial. For screening information in the U.S., go to For those in Great Britain and elsewhere, a DVD of the film can be ordered be ordered from