'McLibel' trial: UK violated activists' rights

The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday condemned the United Kingdom for violating the rights of two activists convicted of libelling United States fast food chain McDonald’s, ending a 15-year legal battle.

The decision marked a victory for campaigners Helen Steel and Dave Morris, who were found guilty in the so-called “McLibel” trial, the longest in English legal history.

The Strasbourg-based court ruled that Britain had violated Articles 6.1 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantee the right to a fair hearing and the right to freedom of expression.

“The court finds that the denial of legal aid to the applicants deprived them of the opportunity to present their case effectively before the court and contributed to an unacceptable inequality of arms with McDonald’s,” it said.

The panel added: “The court does not consider that the correct balance was struck between the need to protect the applicants’ rights to freedom of expression and the need to protect McDonald’s’ rights and reputation.”

Steel and Morris hailed the verdict, saying in a statement: “Having largely beaten McDonald’s and won some damning judgments against them in our trial, we have now exposed the notoriously oppressive and unfair UK laws.

“As a result of the European Court ruling today, the government may be forced to amend or scrap some of the existing UK laws.”

The Department for Constitutional Affairs in London said only that it is “studying the judgement very carefully”.

Steel and Morris distributed leaflets in London in 1989 and 1990 entitled What’s Wrong with McDonald’s?, which accused the chain of selling unhealthy food, harming the environment and exploiting children with its advertising.

The “McLibel” trial ran for 313 days before high court Judge Rodger Bell ruled in June 1997 that the leaflet was largely untrue.

McDonald’s won £60 000 from each in damages, later reduced by a third, but Steel (39) and Morris (50), both unemployed residents of north London, never paid the damages.

On Tuesday, the European court instead ordered Britain to pay damages of â,¬20 000 to Steel and â,¬15 000 to Morris. It also ordered Britain to pay court costs of â,¬47 311 and 17 cents.

In a hearing before the Strasbourg court, the pair accused Britain of failing to grant them a fair trial, with their lawyer citing the “blatant imbalance of resources” between the activists and the fast-food giant.

McDonald’s reportedly spent £10-million in pursuing the case, while Steel and Morris were refused legal aid and represented themselves throughout the marathon trial in Britain.

The campaigners also argued that their right to freedom to expression had been violated by the heavy burden of proof placed upon them by Britain’s tough libel laws—an argument supported by the Strasbourg court.

The European rights court said that “in a democratic society even small and informal campaign groups, such as London Greenpeace, must be able to carry on their activities effectively”.

The panel of judges added that “there exists a strong public interest in enabling such groups and individuals outside the mainstream to contribute to the public debate by disseminating information and ideas on matters of general public interest, such as health and the environment”.

At the time they distributed the leaflets, Steel and Morris were members of London Greenpeace, which was not connected with the Greenpeace International environmental group.

According to court documents, the first page of the leaflet depicted a man wearing a Stetson with dollar signs in his eyes hiding behind a Ronald McDonald mask, with the words “McDollars, McGreedy, McCancer, McMurder, McDisease”.

The pamphlet accused McDonald’s of destroying vast swathes of rainforest in Central America to create grazing pastures for cattle, the “bloody and barbaric” slaughter of animals and selling junk food that causes heart disease.—AFP

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